I’ll admit upfront that I’m a terrible dancer. Not the kind of terrible that is actually cute. I’m talking the real, awkward kind of terrible. I blame it on being tall. It’s just not easy to make limbs in these proportions move cohesively the way I’d like them to. Maybe that’s why An Evening of Modern Dance caught my attention—it’s easy to see a bit of myself in its hilariously floundering dancers.
An Evening of Modern Dance follows in the tumbling footsteps of QWOP (2008) and Octodad (2010), this time bringing ragdoll physics to the stage. Made for Ludum Dare 32 by Joseph Parker, the game has no objective other than dancing. In it, you attempt to control one to four abstract human figures in a brief dance performance, backdropped by randomly generated modern “music.” Typical shenanigans ensue.
The spotlight brightens, the first chord strikes, and your performance begins. The only trick is that all attempts to move in a way that resembles actual dance result in utter and laughter-inducing failure. Any sense of real control over the dancing figures is fleeting at best, especially if a (ridiculously easy to trigger) glitch causes one or more of your dancers to, say, inexplicably burst into flailing pieces and/or completely fly off the stage and into the blue void beyond the walls (“If the physics glitch out you need more dancing practice” quips the game’s description). The fact that the controls are relative to the dancer and not you as a player only makes it even harder.
I found myself chuckling just as much at the standard ragdoll tumbling about as I did when the dancers performed game-breaking flights past the walls. It only felt appropriate, really, because ragdoll mechanics already toe the line between intention and glitch. Maybe that’s why they’re so damn funny—because it seems like the game’s broken, and it seems like the dancer’s broken too. Take an avatar with warped responses and add a player with frustratingly ineffectual controls and you get one piss-poor imitation of a ballerina. Something in between algorithm and human happens on the screen that isn’t quite either.
But the ragdoll comedy is only amplified here because modern dance is supposed to be Serious Business Art. I mean, what better way to poke fun at avant-garde modern dance than with slapstick ragdoll physics? And there can surely be no better setting for the hilarity of flailing about than a stage meant for highly precise dance. And yet I get the hankering to make something more of it. Maybe An Evening of Modern Dance is an assertion that games won’t ever be Serious Business Art in the heavily elitist way that modern dance can be—not when game makers refuse to take themselves seriously, not when laughter (obviously the enemy of Serious Business Art) is so welcomed and expected. Though, in making that statement, I give the game a dose of the art cred that it probably doesn’t want. It just wants to flail across the screen, broken and beautiful for it.