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Pippin Barr's philosophy of developing 'curious' games


Pippin Barr's doctoral thesis is titled Video Game Values: Play as Human-Computer Interaction, submitted in 2008 to the Victoria University of Wellington as the final stage of his degree, Doctor of Philosophy in Computer Science. In the thesis, Barr highlights the act of playing a computer program rather than simply using one, with case studies in Civilization 3, Fable, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Half-Life 2, and The Sims 2.

Schoolwork completed, Barr spends his time teaching at the University of Malta's Institute of Digital Games, and developing small, profound games with an experimental edge. Barr's projects are simple, thoughtful and play with the boundaries of what a "game" can be:

The Artist is Present is a game about waiting in line at New York's Museum of Modern Art, complete with real-life museum closing times and hours of standing, doing-nothing excitement. Let's Play: Ancient Greek Punishment is a series of short games about Greek myths – short because they're all unwinnable, with death as a constant outcome looming behind each stark, pixelated scene. Barr's most recent project, the Mumble Indie Bungle, features six games based on popular indie titles as if your grandmother misheard them at the last family dinner, such as World of Glue, Carp Life and Gurney. They're short, minimalistic and frustrating, but they're definitely not all supposed to be "boring," Barr tells me.

"I want to make games that controvert the standard rules – I spent quite a bit of time on that in my early games – well, maybe all my games," he says. "Games that you can't win, games where you just have to wait for a long time, games where you win but it's not satisfying, games where you're not very important in the world of the game, and so forth. These games can be boring if you're not prepared to embrace a different perspective on things – but if you are prepared to do so, I think they can be quite interesting experiences."

Surprisingly, Barr has never been called a hipster.

At least, not to his face. Even if someone were to throw that word at him, it "doesn't seem like the end of the world," he says. Barr calls his projects "Curious Games," but not in the proper, Alice in Wonderland sense that they're odd. His games prompt players, and Barr himself, to consider new angles of life, feel a fresh emotion or consider awkward subjects such as death or consciousness. This isn't always on purpose.

"I do think that many of the games I've worked on have kind of developed their own agenda as I've been making them," Barr says. "While I usually start with what I think of as a joke – a game where you dance against Zorba, a game where you play as Epic Sax Guy – I almost always end up thinking about the games more philosophically by the end. Not always, but most often.

"Gurney, in the new collection of games, started off being just a funny way of interpreting that word, but by the time I was done with it I felt like there was something poignant about the representation of death (or the loss of consciousness) and prayer and so on – I do feel like it catches something more than just a laugh. I've called these kinds of games 'Curious Games' as a way of getting at this process. Often it feels like the games themselves are curious."

Pippin Barr's philosophy of developing 'curious' gamesIn Gurney, players must correctly type out a series of religious phrases as they scroll across the bottom of the screen, the majority of which is filled with passing ceiling tiles, light fixtures, and the mute, harried faces of doctors peering down. The words become jumbled and illegible as the player on the gurney loses consciousness and confronts death, represented by strobing lights and loud, mashed-up sounds.

Gurney is part of the Mumble Indie Bungle, a selection of five free games and one that costs $1, at least. It's an inverted take on the "indie bundle" fad, featuring similarly backward games: Gurney, World of Glue, Spy Parity, Proteas and 30 Flights of Loathing for free, and Carp Life for $1 or more. In 30 Flights of Loathing, for example, players climb a series of stairs by typing the words composing the steps, such as "My life is pointless" and "I am disgusting and everyone laughs behind my back."

The mechanics of Barr's games are excessively simple, and he thinks that's just fine. He craves the emotional and intellectual impact.

Pippin Barr's philosophy of developing 'curious' games"In The Artist Is Present, all you 'do' is wait in a queue for hours, but I've had at least a few people write to me to say that that was a very meaningful and deep experience for them," Barr says. "Likewise, in 30 Flights of Loathing, in the Mumble Indie Bungle, all you do is type letters to climb stairs, but I've certainly found a kind of half-poignant, half black-comedy moment in the 'winning' of that game."

Download 30 Flights of Loathing for free right here to find out exactly why Barr puts "winning" in quotes.

Much like pursuing a doctorate in philosophy, Barr doesn't make games to get rich, and in fact, charging $1 for Carp Life is a bold new move for him – until now, Barr hasn't made any money off of these games at all.

"Fortunately I don't really need the games to make money at the moment," Barr says. His wife, Rilla, is an Associate Professor and successful academic, and she supports the pair as Barr contributes financially with more random university teaching gigs.

Pippin Barr's philosophy of developing 'curious' games "All that said, I'd really love to figure out a way for my games – and other people's quirky, not-quite-right games – to make money," Barr says.

Making money with indie games is tricky, especially in the mobile space, since industry standards dictate a hefty amount of game for a small price, usually just $1. Recent games such as Ridiculous Fishing challenge that price point, charging $3 for a full game, but for now it's still a tough marketplace for experimental titles.

"I'm not sure what the way around this is," Barr says. "My wife was joking about people forming a union, actually. One part may just be to charge more for these things and to try to have everyone think of them as different. A game I make isn't the same sort of thing as Angry Birds, say, and that's all right. It might even dare to cost more than Angry Birds. I don't know, though; it's very tricky. I'm mostly resigned to not ever making a direct 'supporting income' from games."

Perhaps after his Carp Life experiment, Barr will uncover a new way of selling underground, artistic indie games to a wider audience, but until then, he'll keep making "Curious Games." Not because he wants to, necessarily – because he has to.

"If anything, my agenda is 'make the games I feel must exist," Barr says. "I felt very strongly, once I'd thought of it, that a game where you go to a museum to see a performance artwork must exist. And I felt I'd probably have to be the one to make it. It often goes that way: 'Well, guess I'd better make this game, no one else is going to do it.'"

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