Wednesday, February 8, 2017

"Press Forwards" and the pleasing death of agency

Trackmania games have very robust track editors that let the community build and share custom tracks very easily. This ease of use and immediacy allows new track genres to emerge organically from "grassroots" player communities, a practice that I've characterized before as "local level design" -- it is not just new ways of using the game's building blocks, but it also suggests entirely new ways of thinking about the game itself.

The "press forward" genre (or "PFs") is one of my favorite examples of emergent level genres. Instead of challenging players to hone reflexes and maneuvers on a track, a PF beckons the player to simply hold down "forward" as a mindbogglingly complex track swirls around them. Through no skill of their own, a player ends up executing amazing stunts -- spinning 1080 degrees in the air before barely grazing a ramp in just-the-right-way to land perfectly on the track below. If the player makes any kind of choice, like letting go of the "forward" key, or (god forbid) turning left by 0.1 degrees, the consequences are often fatal.

There's a famous saying that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." PFs are maybe the closest thing to actually dancing about architecture. Sometimes it feels like the track architect wanted to impress you, sometimes they are making a joke, sometimes they want to scare you. The PF frees us, to be more open and receptive to the ways that architecture speaks to us as we traverse it.

Notably, this is a track type that resists the dominant mode of playing Trackmania. It is a video game world that basically punishes you for even trying to wield any agency or control. When virtuosity is guaranteed, how many humans can resist the urge to fuck it up?

As someone who's dabbled with the track editor a bit: the construction is pretty impressive. It's hard to build these.

Modern level editors like Mario Maker helpfully visualize the player's jumps and trajectory, letting designers fine-tune their object placement. But the last time I checked, there was not an equivalent in the Trackmania editor. If you want to build a PF, you already have to be an pretty good TM player who has internalized the car physics and handling, and can predict how cars will spin and tilt... and then I imagine it's about hours and hours of trial and error. There's something beautiful about that -- that skilled players are building places where a player's skill is irrelevant -- they are negating themselves, or perhaps, transcending into something else: skilled choreographers instead of skilled performers?

The "best" PFs seem to focus on sheer size / complex level-over-level intersections / unanticipated improvisation of non-standard track pieces. For instance, a skillfully constructed PF somehow directs the player to hit the track at a strange angle, drive across it sub-optimally, fall-off, spin erratically, skid along a decorative chrome statue, then land perfectly on a ramp. The goal is a sort of uncanny performance that a human player could probably never achieve, unless aided by a track that performs itself, like some sort of gorgeous architectural auto-fellatio. Humans are merely its instrument.

In many ways, the PF is a sort of in-engine love letter to the game engine / "ghost in the machine" itself. It's not just dancing about architecture, but also dancing about code architecture.

(captured from "Gaffer on Games: Deterministic Lockstep")
With regard to the game engine: building a game like this in Unity or Unreal would be extremely difficult. You cannot use industry-standard "PhysX" middleware implementations because that is "non-deterministic", a type of physics simulation that may end with different results each time, even if the initial conditions are the same.

Meanwhile, Trackmania's impressive deterministic driving physics mean you can reliably replicate results every time... which makes the PF genre possible. It would be impossible, or at least much less impressive, to build PFs for any other racing game engine.

In this technical sense, I think there's also a difficult but nonetheless solid connection between the Press Forward and its very distant cousin the Walking Simulator. Both genres emerged from late modding communities, both radically resist their parent genre, and both focus on large game worlds with novel spatial dynamics -- and neither demands reflex-based gameplay or any "skill" except for that ultimate universal gameplay mechanic known as "patience."

But one last question bothers me: why even bother to trust the player to "press forward"?

Why not abstract the player entirely, and reduce them to an expendable assistant whose job is to click the menu buttons that load / start / restart the track? Let me be a roadie, let me be a complete servant to the game's will.

Behold, the pinnacle of creation: the "press nothing."