Thursday, October 8, 2009

Why the F!@k am I still (only) playing Avatar Drop?

When I saw Avatar Drop…drop on Marketplace a few weeks ago, I downloaded the trial, played a few rounds, let out a “meh” and went back to Red Faction for a little while. I remembered playing something similar to Avatar Drop in flash form several years ago, wherein the player sent a choice of scantily-clad ladies to grunt and crack as they fell down a pit of balloons and rings. Well, someone from the XNA team cleaned up the idea, allotting point values for falling through different-sized rings, and threw in the depraved vanity of subjecting your own likeness to similar torture, complete with gender-appropriate screams and local multiplayer. I suppose if you’re going to drop someone down a pit of balloons and rings it ought to be a babe or yourself, although it’s hard not to wonder if the concept was drawn from some internet fetish merger. Anyway, there’s only one randomly generated stage, only three types of objects to interact with, and Oompah band music.

And then I came back to it for some reason and it’s the only game I’ve played for the last two weeks. I think I know why.

1. The game has ragdoll physics. In fact, the game is ragdoll physics incarnate. I have not yet tired of ragdoll physics and I don’t think I ever will. You could slap the Havok engine onto a World Series of Poker game and I would probably play it. It’s become such a commonplace element in action games that it’s weird to see death animations anymore. Call it a gimmick or a cop-out; there is just something so visceral and grimly satisfying about watching a body surrendered to the fun world of physics.
I don’t even hate my avatar either. I don’t wish him pain. I would imagine Avatar Drop exists as a tongue-in-cheek way for Microsoft to allow Live members to vent their complaints with the rather comprehensive implementation of avatars in the NXE. Somehow, I have found a more sentimental connection with my digital likeness through his bouncing around in the pit of balloons and rings. I know he’s doing it for me.

2. The illusion of control is a bastard. The developer added one big feature to the Avatar Drop formula that really sucks you in: the spaz-out-with-the-right-stick control. You can rotate your avatar really quickly by flicking the stick, which acts as an air brake of sorts and lets you finesse your way up to new rings. Still, much like your imperfect ring-seeking meat vehicle, the maneuver is ham-fisted and disturbing to watch. And because there are only round surfaces in the pit of balloons and rings, the effect of your control on the trajectory of the avatar is murky. But you can do enough to convince yourself that your nervous adjustments amount to a net positive for your score. Not only that, but you can zoom in and out to get an idea of where to “aim” your avatar next. The truth is probably that you would do just as well just letting your avatar fall. But given the fact that we have the ability to act, can we really resist? There’s some beautiful existential metaphor in there, made only the more material by the Oompah band music.

3. None of my friends are playing it. I paid a dollar to log my high scores and no one else even cares to see how good I am at it. Then I check my scores against the whole Live community and get sad that someone actually managed to get 7000 points worth of rings in one session and I cry a little. And even though no one else I know is playing it, Avatar Drop logs every time I play as a victory. Sad yes, but at least someone knows I am a winner.
To top it all off, this is the only game my girlfriend seems to want to play. I wanted so bad for her to get into Ico or Braid or Bioshock but she is satisfied with maybe the dumbest game this side of Cassie’s Corner. Oh well, she’s still worse than me at it.