last night i gave a talk at evergreen valley college’s (“we’re proud of you”) craft and punishment exhibition. they have a bunch of games set up in the school art gallery (and a continuous loop of all of paul robertson’s movies projected on the wall): nidhogg, norrland, all our friends are dead, i want to be the guy, a slow year (running on an atari vcs, of course!), mighty jill off. they had two computers set up with jason rohrer’s sleep is death, but i think that game has too many layers of interface for the sit-down-and-play format of a gallery space.
i gave a brief presentation on the role of punishment in the design of mighty jill off that i had prepared the night before (for a while i was planning to cancel the talk entirely due to sickness), and then answered questions for an hour or so. this was the far more interesting part: i talked about videogame zinesters, the economics of scratchware game creation, the social dynamics of arcade and gallery spaces, and the way game publishers, journalists and players conspire to keep the culture of games misogynist.
unfortunately, i can’t provide a transcript of the question and answer session, but i can provide the notes and slides from the presentation i gave.
in 2008 i made a game called MIGHTY JILL OFF. it’s inspired by a 1987 nintendo game called mighty bomb jack – a difficult game – and it’s about the masochistic impulses that players of challenging games have. they want to be challenged, they want to prove themselves, they want to be allowed to advance through the game’s challenges – but only once they’ve earned it. as in all consensual masochism, though, there is the everpresent issue of trust.
a screen like this has a clear immediate purpose: it’s intended to be intimidating. the spikes will kill jill and force the player to start the screen over, and they cover almost every surface. this screen is scary.
as someone who is investing time – our most valuable resource – into playing my game, the player needs something from me as the designer. she needs to know that she can trust me – to trust me not to demand she do the impossible, or to do something beyond her capability. she has to trust that i have prepared her adequately for what i’m asking her to do.
as a counter-example, this is the second screen of i want to be the guy. the apples on the trees fall as the player approaches – if they hit her, she’s dead. so getting through this room is a matter of slowly edging forward, coaxing the apples to fall, taking a step back while they fall, and then moving onwards. it’s a long, slow process. at the far right of the screen, after dodging a handful of falling apples, the player must jump to a small platform above a hanging apple. when she does so, the apple falls up and kills her.
that’s the punchline: the humor of i want to be the guy is in the designer’s ability to lead the player and then surprise her – to take advantage of her expectations. this is a jump scare.
MIGHTY JILL OFF is not about surprises. it’s about known fear. there are only two elements at present on this screen, and they’re ones the player is familiar with: spikes and walls. dangerous tiles and solid tiles. this room is intimidating not because of what the player doesn’t know, but because of what she does: she understands exactly what this screen means. this screen is about the anticipation of performing something the player knows will be difficult.
“punishment” in mighty jill off is meaningful because the player understands what she’s being punished for. punishment without communication is mere violence. when the game’s – and by extension the designer’s – expectations are clearly communicated, the designer is allowed to be truly sadistic. and player death has a context that characterizes the dynamic between the player and designer – between the sadist and masochist.