It’s hard to appreciate how “fragile” videogames are. That’s the word that Pippin Barr uses. He immediately backtracks upon saying it as it “sounds negative,” but I think he’s right. Games are fragile. In a lot of cases, changing a single element can turn a game from interesting to dull, from beautiful to offensive, even from a game to not-a-game. This is something that Barr’s latest project explores.
It’s called BREAKSOUT and it’s actually a tapestry of 36 variations on Atari’s classic 1976 arcade game Breakout (a sequel to his similar effort in 2012 titled PONGS). You don’t have to do anything to unlock any of them. They’re all available to play straight away and presented to you on a single menu screen. What you’re supposed to do is simply explore each modified version of the game at your own whim. And all you get to interest you in each one is a teasing title like “BREAKART” or “TRAGIC BREAKOUT”. The fun is finding out how that title relates to the game inside.
Some of them are jokes. “SCREENSHAKEOUT” comes across to me as a parody of Vlambeer’s well-known use of screen shake in its action games. Vlambeer uses it to make its games feel more satisfying: whether you’re shooting a gun or whacking an enemy with a baseball bat, the screen shake makes an impact. But in Barr’s Breakout variation it’s out-of-place, far too excessive for the otherwise quiet play, making it seem absolutely absurd.
These more jokey spins on Breakout will last you a few seconds; a light entertainment. But where BREAKSOUT excels is in how it can play on your mind for a lot longer. Barr talks to me about this, about how he is “playing with the construction and ‘meaning’ of a game” by demonstrating how “rapidly a game can become ‘not itself’ by changing just the simplest things in code or conception.” It’s fascinating. But you’ll need to give BREAKSOUT some time for it to show you this. You might also need to invest some deep thought into it yourself.
Here’s an example that Barr gives on how changing one element of Breakout can have us ruminate on something much deeper. “BROKENOUT literally just adds one line of code removing all the bricks, and it becomes a radically different game (if it’s a ‘game’),” he says. “Not just experientially in that you can’t really do anything, but existentially too, I think—it kind of becomes about the nature of play, even about loneliness and playing alone.” And it does. It really does. Go play BROKENOUT (‘N’ on the game’s menu) and you’ll see how this reading can easily come about. It’s essentially a digital version of a kid chucking a ball against a wall out of boredom, longing for a play mate.
And, remember, this is only one variation of a total of 36 in BREAKSOUT. Barr remarks that he could have just left it as one and made the same point about how fragile games are, or at least how easily they can be changed. But in letting us explore tens of them in our own time he also demonstrates the creative possibilities of videogames. This is just Breakout, a simple arcade game made of the simplest components, and yet Barr finds a large number of ways to convert its meaning and tone just by tweaking one of those components at a time. It shows us what might be possible within games if they can break out of the established formats they’re so sunken into. And so we’re left to conclude that so much else seems possible in games if you are willing to, er, breakout (I’m not sorry) of those formulas.
p.s. My favorite variation is FREAKOUT. I’ve found that reloading it over and over to see the many various ways the game breaks itself to be engrossing. BREAKOUT VR is also worth a giggle.