The only feedback Mighty Jill Off offers is that drug my brain gives me for learning new patterns. The screen shuns easy numerical incentives like coins. There’s an unobtrusive timer ticking away under the hood, quietly tracking my progress. But I don’t know about that until after I’ve scaled the tower, and I find out thirty minutes have passed. A more skilled player might breeze through Anna Anthropy’s unsympathetic platformer in ten minutes or less. Either way, you’re likely to spend each second so utterly engrossed that time will retire from your conscious mind, much like the television that softly murmurs in the next room. All you do in this game is jump. The mechanic is borrowed from an arcade platformer called Bomb Jack. It’s a slow, floaty kind of leap that allows you to cut off upward ascension and hover through the air. Mighty Jill Off is not so much about its fundamental action, but the process through which the player comes to know this action completely. It’s a game about S&M. It’s a game about game design. It’s a game about ambiguity.
Most well-funded commercial endeavors strive to avoid ambiguity at all costs. Many a game reveals everything it has to offer in some front-loaded, mind-numbing, text-heavy tutorial. For me, this is something like shoving children aside and opening their presents for them. It undermines those initial, sacred moments of exploring a shiny new playspace. Too many triple-A endeavors end up dull, derivative and unimaginative, and I think a lack of ambiguity is to blame.
In Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Anthropy argues that ambiguity is one of the things videogames are best at. It’s a significant part of what the “video” in videogame is good for:
In digital games, the computer keeps the rules. The computer tracks all the numbers. Digital games therefore have much greater control over what information the players have access to, making videogames capable of much greater ambiguity than board or card games. (52)
The experience of playing a videogame is one that is developed in a fog. We don’t want to know about velocity, acceleration or collision angles. We just want to save the princess. Fueled by secrets, videogames challenge and direct us with carefully paced revelations.
In her analysis of Super Mario Bros., Anthropy suggests that ambiguity means more than just unseen algorithmic dance parties. It’s also about teasing out mechanical subtleties. After catching up on my freeware, I’ve been playing Max Payne 3. It’s a sleek, smart game that has left me with an unsatisfied feeling, despite its merits. I think it’s that feeling that Jim Rossignol calls “hollow.” For one, Max Payne 3 is a game in which you do the same thing over and over again for twelve hours. This in itself is not a problem, but new challenges do little to demand alternate strategies. In between Max’s admittedly endearing quips, there is only the player’s grim, dogged, stupid persistence. Max has issues, but there’s no way he hates himself quite as much as I hate that next wave of persistent bullet punching bags. Too soon, my experimentation with the impressive dodge-shoot mechanic was foregone in favor of a safer, less interesting turtle-shell strategy: snappin’ in and out of cover, pickin ‘em off one by one.
By ambiguity, I don’t just mean “what the fuck was Braid about?” (Editor’s note: The answer to this question can be found here.) Ambiguity in videogames doesn’t have to be about confusion. The best games, like Portal, have an exhaustive understanding of the manipulative, lab-rat relationship between player and game author. Precise, tight design goes hand in hand with ambiguity. Jumping is a single action that can be executed and challenged in infinite ways. The player affects momentum. Momentum affects the trajectory of a leaping Mario. Obstacles like Bowser tell Mario where to leap. When such a mechanic is properly cultivated, mastery doesn’t just require sharp reflexes. It demands nuanced analysis.
Mods like Brutal Mario are compelling because fresh interpretations of a well-worn mechanic can lead to interesting results. A well-crafted game system constantly asks you to reevaluate your abilities. At the beginning of Super Mario Bros., Mario has all the capacity for jumping he will ever have, but if he never leaves the first level, none of it matters. The mechanic and the obstacle course are co-dependent. My problem with Max Payne 3 is that greater difficulty arrives not in the form of variety but in more numerous and resilient bullet sponges. The game’s primary mechanic allows for ambiguity, but its system favors repetition.
This point of repetition is perhaps best illustrated by a zoomed in, slow motion camera that watches you pump bullets into the last enemy standing, long after that enemy has ceased to be artificially alive. This bullet cam mode, or whatever, is puzzling. It distills the relatively complex act of aiming and shooting down to a bloody button-mashing affair. I understand the basic primal appeal in this, and I willfully participated even when ammo was scarce. What weirded me out is that Max is self-consciously self-aware to the point that it’s almost annoying. He’s always drinking and frowning at social injustice with his dark witticisms and talking about how he’s so pathetic and amoral. But after Max finishes telling me how fucked up everything is and clears the room of bad guys, we take a load off by spitting bullets into one final, unfortunate corpse before moving on. Max clearly loathes what he’s become, but it’s not like we just shoot the place up and get on with it. The camera slows down, zooms in, and we relish in the red dance. It’s as if the game is parodying its own exhausting, yet irresistible, lack of subtlety. There’s a sense that Rockstar shares in some of Max’s humor and self-awareness but doesn’t do anything but nod dismissively and chuckle at my persistence.
Conversely, Mighty Jill Off is an acute exploration of the sadomasochistic game author/player relationship. The game commands the player to pursue a single mechanic until its potential is all but exhausted. Thematic resonance is constantly reinforced by the player’s willingness to commit to failure for the sake of mastery and master. With each level, the player gleans understanding of what it means to jump. The game asks you to forget about choice, as we often think of it in games, by reminding you of the submissive role that you chose by participating in the first place. It achieves all of this without resorting to easier, Skinnerian tactics like power-ups. The only reward is adrenaline-fueled vertical ascension. Mighty Jill Off shows that failure lends substance to success, and nuanced repetition can be the entire point, rather than a substitute for dynamic level design.
Note: Mighty Jill Off is currently part of the Recession Bundle, which includes six freeware games and two commercial games for a $1 minimum. Donating at least $5 unlocks an additional game. The Recession Bundle is open until Friday, 7/20.