In a sense, the player and the game are two parts of one unit. Physical meets digital, and flesh meets pixels.
I am in here, in a room of myself. Bare walls, bad carpeting, used furniture. Two open windows through which no breeze blows. No air conditioning, either. The box fan’s droning on at full speed. My screen’s aglow and my hands grip the controller. Primary colors and vector graphics. Skittering drums and chiptune synths. I’m playing Flywrench, and I’m dying a lot. My chair’s shedding dandruff-like flakes of pleather. I’m sweating and twitching and staring. I’m dying and retrying and dying in the hopes that I can make it to the next level and do it all again. It’s more the humidity than the heat. I am in here.
Flywrench is a pure game. Developed by Messhof, the developer also responsible for Nidhogg, the game is aggressively minimalist in style and play. You control a spaceship, represented by a colored rectangle, and fly through a series of obstacles in the form of colored lines. If you don’t press anything, the ship is white, allowing you to pass through white lines. Press A to flap and gain altitude, which turns the ship red, allowing you to pass through red lines. Hold X to spin, which turns the ship green (I think you get the picture). Touch a yellow or pink line and you automatically die.
So yes, you’ll die a lot, and instantly respawn before your brain can even register the thing that killed you, and die again. I’m contractually obligated to mention Super Meat Boy at this point (incidentally, the Flywrench ship appears in Super Meat Boy as an unlockable character). Later levels add further complications: tan-colored zones where gravity is more oppressive, spinning pink windmills of death, and timed switches that temporarily deactivate otherwise impassable barriers.
The setup is that you’re flying through the solar system, starting at Pluto (a freeware version of the game was released in 2007, back when Pluto was still a planet) and travelling toward the sun. Each planet contains a dozen or so levels and introduces a new mechanic. The story, if you could call it that, is told entirely through bizarre snippets of text that accompany each new planet. It sounds a bit like high school poetry: “Plant your mind in a field / Under every rock is light.”
As you might have guessed, though, Flywrench is not the sort of game that’s interested in telling an intricate story. It’s a game of controlled muscle spasms: flicking the analog stick in precisely the right direction at precisely the right time with your right thumb hovering over the buttons, tapping out the morse-code like patterns that’ll get you to the end.
It’s hard to talk about these sorts of games, though. Critics have a tendency to focus on narrative when analyzing games, since people have been unpacking and critiquing stories for several centuries. The interactive stuff, though, the thoughts and feelings and sensations that you have when actually interfacing with a game. That stuff’s trickier to pin down.
How do you analyze a game that’s nothing but game? What can you say about it, beyond describing its rules? How do you dissect something like, say, Tetris? You could claim, like media scholar Janet Murray did in 1997, that Tetris is “a perfect enactment of the overtasked lives of Americans in the 1990s -- of the constant bombardment of tasks that demand our attention and that we must somehow fit into our overcrowded schedules and clear off our desks in order to make room for the next onslaught.”
Which is a silly claim to make. Aside from the obvious errors (Tetris was designed by a Russian in the 1980s), Murray is more interested in imposing her pre-existing interpretation onto the game rather than drawing conclusions from the game itself. I mean, I could claim that Flywrench is a metaphor for introspection, where you start on the outer edge of the solar system (which represents the self) and gain deeper levels of understanding the closer you get to the core. It would be a silly claim to make, but I could make it.
The more productive thing to do would be to look at how Flywrench plays and the player’s relationship to play. “During videogame play, the player embodies a hybridised body, incorporating flesh, hardware, and virtual objects and beings into their corporeal schema,” wrote critic Brendan Keogh, which is a fancy way of saying that in a sense, the player and game become two parts of one unit. Physical meets digital, and flesh meets pixels.
It’s hard, though, especially when we’re still developing a critical language to discuss the mechanics of play. There are buzzwords to throw around (“immersive,” “visceral”), but they don’t tell you anything. I’m struggling to tell you anything. All I can tell you is that Flywrench does something to my mind and body. It makes me aware of the mediation between what I want to happen in my head, what I actually do with my fingers, and what results on the screen. It makes me aware of myself. It makes me (no joke) itch, sneeze, and pause to rub my eyes. I can’t play it for more than half an hour at a time, but when I do play, it makes me realize exactly where and what I am.