Rock Simulator 2014 and the persistence of the anti-game

“For a long time, there has been one game missing from the market, a genuine rock simulator.”

This opening sentence on Rock Simulator 2014‘s Greenlight Concepts page has incited a cocktail of rage, amusement, and confusion across the internet. It’s easy to see why. It’s not because you’re playing as a rock, per se. In ACE Team’s action-strategy game Rock of Ages you controlled a boulder, and it was lauded by critics and players, disproving that notion. No, the furore is because Rock Simulator 2014 stays true to its title. Simulating a rock (or, rather, watching rocks) doesn’t immediately denote much active interaction between the player and the software. More than that, it seems to be even less than mundane; boring, utterly dull, some might even call it pointless.

“Looking forward to the paint drying sim,” one person quips.

As it currently stands, Rock Simulator 2014‘s features are limited to watching “beautiful rocks in any location in the world.” You can also play as a rock tumbling down a hill. Creator Strange Panther Games also plans to spoil the purity of the simulation with a mini-game in which you have to avoid obstacles—a very typical videogame activity. Nonetheless, Rock Simulator 2014 subverts established expectations of what gives a videogame capital (what makes it worth our time and money), and so you might expect the discussion around it to be entirely negative. However, most of the comments are positive; the game currently holds a 5-star rating on Greenlight.

makes a mockery of the “content packing” that is often boasted by videogame companies. 

There may be a few people genuinely excited about Rock Simulator 2014, and that’s fair enough. But on the whole, those publicly enthusiastic towards it are putting on a farce. It’s a similar approach to the one that Amiga Power adopted when presenting Sensible Software’s Sim Brick way back in 1991.

Yes, despite Strange Panther’s claim that Rock Simulator 2014 is the first of its kind, it is far from. Sensible Software’s Sim Brick lets you “exist” as a brick at the bottom of a garden. You can also display some information about the brick, pause the game, and quit—those are its features. Sim Brick came free with Amiga Power issue 13, meaning that one of the magazine’s staff had to write something about it. They placed their tongue firmly into their cheek for the occasion.

“You’ve played Sim City. You’ve waited fruitlessly for Sim Earth. You’ve sniggered at the concept of Sim Ant. Now try the ultimate in simulations — Sim Brick!”

Some of the words are emphasized with capital letters as they’re presumably considered to denote the game’s most attractive qualities: “GASP IN AWE,” “PONDER THOUGHTFULLY,” “CACKLE MANIACALLY.” The prose has all the exaggerated flair of marketing speak. Rather than criticize, Amiga Power plays along with Sensible Software’s parody of simulation games here, and uses the kind of hyperbole you’d expect from a desperate marketing campaign.

Much to many people’s surprise, Rock Simulator 2014 has also been written about by publications including PC Gamer, GameSpot, and Kotaku. Once again, the writers get the joke, but it’s the response in the comments below these articles that’s most interesting. Whereas Sim Brick was a parody of simulator games of the time, Rock Simulator 2014 is being used by people to parody the exhaustive state of current business models and videogame marketing’s tendency to dress mutton up as lamb. To demonstrate, here’s a handful of comments from the PC Gamer article:

“… but is it a AAA rock simulator? Can EA make a franchise for it?

“I can’t wait for the release. I’m a rocker for life”

“If you beat the game you’ll get to play it again as a brick.”

“No one’s bothered to ask if it comes with Oculus Rift support.”

“I hope they do this right, and include a wide selection of different rocks in all different shapes and sizes. Can’t wait for this.”

Rock Simulator 2014 has seemingly become the videogame version of the USB Pet Rock, which was an April Fools’ joke and a cutting parody of technology culture. Specifically, USB Pet Rock targets the tendency in dominant tech-progressivist circles to define an object’s value by its marketability; especially how high-tech its components are, even if gratuitous and attached by proverbial duct tape.

In videogame terms, and in the case of Rock Simulator 2014, this translates to a parody that includes admiring how “realistic” Rock Simulator 2014‘s graphics are, as if that one quality negated other shortcomings. Suggestions for how to pack Rock Simulator 2014 out with DLC, Oculus Rift support, multiplayer, and other unwarranted features makes a mockery of the “content packing” that is often boasted by videogame companies. Just look at how open world games like GTA 5 and, most recently, Watch_Dogs are marketed. We’re told that the value of these games is in how much “stuff” you can do inside their virtual spaces.

people stated that the joke was old and not funny anymore 

It’s the big-box sell of enormity and realism (and often violence) that purveys what is thought to hold capital in videogames. Indeed, the videogames that fit into these categories are among those that make the most money. This is why some people complain about a game being too short, or it being dismissible solely on the account of it having not met the current highest benchmark for computer graphics. Rock Simulator 2014 clearly doesn’t fit into this notion of value, so it’s an easy target for criticism and mockery. But, largely, this isn’t what has happened. Instead, people have turned this expected response on its head and shown enlivened support for Rock Simulator 2014. Now the target isn’t the simulator. It’s the strict culture surrounding its medium that would otherwise dismiss it as pathetic.

This backlash is being helped along by every article about it, including, yes, this one. Its rapid popularity also means that there’s a very real possibility that it will be Greenlit soon. The extrapolation is that Rock Simulator 2014 is worth something; is of value. The ultimate fear is that it will be sold on Steam and that people will pay money for it (even if they don’t play it). That is a distressing thought to some, and causes them to enact rage against it, but why? It’s not like anyone is forcing them to buy it if that did happen.

Rock Simulator 2014 is the latest in a long line of simulator games ranging from Sitting Simulator to Elevator Simulator (and nearly everything in between). These tend to be free games with only a few hundred plays at the most. These are not considered harmful by anyone, since they’re free and so can easily be ignored as a silly little project. Rock Simulator 2014 is different: it follows in the hoofprints of Goat Simulator, which went viral after a short trailer, encouraging Coffee Stain Studios to turn an in-house joke into a commercial product. It, too, attracted a concoction of excitement and rage akin to the reactions to Rock Simulator 2014 over the past few days.

I didn’t expect anything near the reaction its getting. It originally started as a joke, and now that we’ve seen the reaction, it’s a completely real game,” Strange Panther told Polygon.

Rock Simulator 2014 won’t be sold for money (but its creators are seeking funding on Indiegogo), but for a few days this wasn’t known and so people started answering the rhetorical question: “What if it was sold on Steam for cash?” Faced with such a scenario, people stated that the joke was old and not funny anymore, therefore removing the one quality they could recognize in this type of game. Rock Simulator 2014, quite simply, does not serve the self-aggrandizing agenda of the hegemony in videogame business and culture.

And what about David O’Reilly’s Mountain

Again, this isn’t usually a problem, as it would normally be easily ignored. That is certainly the case with the utterly similar and utterly ignored Rock: The Simulator Game. But the reason that Rock Simulator 2014 is different is because it’s on Greenlight, and because it’s occupying the spaces and outlets that cover mainstream commercial gaming. This unattractive videogame almost devoid of features, activities, and goals—practically everything that’s held as being a feature of value—is gaining capital, and that threatens to change the system.

Even Goat Simulator, with its penchant for silly bugs and absurd activities, is still recognizably an entertaining videogame in the most basal understanding of the term. It even gives you goals to complete and has had updates adding multiplayer and what is considered to be extra worth to it. Rock Simulator 2014’s stony mundanity has none of that. It’s the videogame that How To Be A Tree jokingly pretends to be.

It’s unsurprising that one person has said that Rock Simulator 2014 “still has more gameplay than Gone Home.” Gone Home (and Proteus and Dear Esther before it) has been a target for a lot of hatred for many of the same reasons that Rock Simulator 2014 has been, and many others that it hasn’t. It’s perceived to lack gameplay, it has no violence or guns yet is played from a first-person perspective (this is unusual to many players), and its central love interest isn’t heterosexual. Combine all of that with it being sold as a commercial videogame and it becomes a threat to the sentiments that the videogame hegemony upholds. Essentially, these interactive software, these “experiences” (as they’re often discredited), challenge what a videogame is and what it can be.

This kind of struggle isn’t exclusive to videogames. It’s happened in music, in theater, literature, poems, and cinema. This may be giving Strange Panther a little too much credit—who has already said that it started off as a joke rather than a statement—but you could compare Rock Simulator 2014 to John Cage’s “4’33”. It’s a silent song composed by the sounds you hear around you while “listening” during its four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The conversation around Rock Simulator 2014 has shades of those that emerge when noise music, or the new hardcorest iteration of metal, or really any new type of popular but different music comes about; there are always those who deny its status as music as soon as it enters their cultural sphere.

Rock Simulator 2014 isn’t alone even among videogames in its anti-game design. Back in 2012, a Chinese game developer released a browser game called Trifolium that asks players to create their own rules of play. It consists of a single image that portrays flowers falling past it—you could compare it to a screensaver. The rule could be having to count the flowers before they fall off the screen, or moving the mouse around the screen and dodging the flowers with it. The game was found in creating your own game. Trifolium is comparable to games we make up out of boredom, such as pretending parts of the floor are lava.

And what about David O’Reilly’s Mountain? O’Reilly announced Mountain during the Horizon conference at E3 2014 and it has since been praised and widely discussed without hatred. Mountain has you create a bespoke mountain by answering a series of questions, and then watching nature “happen” upon it for up to 50 hours. You don’t do anything else. Is this not a slightly more artistic Rock Simulator 2014? It is; O’Reilly even calls it a “mountain simulator.” It hasn’t been met with nearly the amount of negativity as Rock Simulator 2014 because it’s being created by David O’Reilly and isn’t ugly in the slightest.

In this greater context, Rock Simulator 2014 isn’t actually all that out of place in its subversion of videogame concepts. It might even be necessary. It, along with others, deliberately goes out of its way to challenge what a videogame could be. The medium would probably go stale if there weren’t those willing to take it outside of its current comfort zones.