What made me obsessively play this seemingly stupid game?
This question doesn’t come from a place of wanting understand something grand about the human condition; it is more of an exploration of how interactive media can hook a player through repetition or seemingly nothing at all.
In the medium of games, this is actually a common occurrence. We commit to the same types of actions; shooting, stabbing, pulling/pushing/breaking objects, but for what reason? Take the perennial whipping boy of first person shooters, Call of Duty. Since its inception, the main (and to some singular) action is to pull the left then the right trigger until all the bad men are dead. Whether those enemies are Nazis, Russians, Middle Eastern, or American the conclusion remains the same; kill them all. What makes this constant repetition work seems to be something as simple as a change of venue. Creating diverse and interesting set pieces makes the shooting and following bearable for the usual six hours. This same flow, which some would call a “crutch,” explains why I love McPixel.
Follow me here for a second. The act of clicking on objects in McPixel to complete what this game presents as puzzles never changes throughout the game. What is considered the main method of interaction does get more complex or nuanced; it only becomes crazier. What changes is the manic, crudely animated, bundle of pure damn insanity that comes from selecting objects keeps people in the game. Acid, televisions, hot dogs, removable sparks from a fuse, these are just some of the things you get to click on. And you know what? It is genuinely fun.
I started playing McPixel late at night, and “finished” it even later. I don’t recommend taking this course of action. This game should be played with breaks; I liken it to the visual/audio overload that is Nintendo’s WarioWare series. The game is structured into five chapters each with multiple scenes that the hero must find and dispose of a sometimes cleverly hidden bomb. The time limit for each scene means that the player usually ends up clicking the first thing that catches their eye, then leading to time honoured adventure game tradition of trying that object with everything else in the scene. It starts crazy and spirals up (or down, depending on your sensibilities) until its maddening end.
McPixel, the titular hero, is kind of a dick. Even though he ends up saving people from an explosive end, this usually results in severely hurting one of the numerous characters throughout each interactive tableau. Conversely, the actions that don’t solve the scene end with McPixel smacking people/animals/objects with the biggest smile on his face. Sociopathic ? Probably, but the graphical styling makes it all seem like clean cartoon violence. McPixel plays its aesthetic up to the level of ludicrous. There are numerous pop culture references ranging from games to movies, all of which are rendered as a high quality Commodore 64 game coupled with the catchiest chiptune song I have ever heard. That song; it sits in the background permeating your very being. As I went to sleep I could still here it vibrating through skull. It is manic, constantly driving forward, seemingly teetering on the edge but always in control.
There is a solution for every puzzle; a correct sequence of clicks on the right objects that leads to the bomb being “dealt with.” But, the fun of the game comes from exploring every scene to its fullest. The game trains you to just start interacting with every object, which culminates in the final level. A test of mental endurance involving a sequence of the same scene, complete with around seven fake bombs, unique animations for each, and only one solution. Finding the solution comes through trial and error, reading a walkthrough, or straight clairvoyance. It should not have been fun; I should have turned the game off once I solved each of these scenes. But, I ended up watching every single permutation. Some of them were funny; others were stupid. But, why did I watch them? The reason seems actually pretty simple.
The brilliance of McPixel perverts the link between interaction and reward. The common term used in game design for this connection is the feedback loop. The player commits an action that changes something about the game world, such as killing an enemy or altering a game object, leading to some sort of reward. Said prize can be a new ability or item that alters the rules of interaction, “useful” or “useless” information about the system, or just forward progress in the narrative. RPGs use leveling up and character growth as a drip feed of positive reinforcement, with some like Diablo having an almost clockwork-esque loop of fight, loot, and improve. Adventure games have a more measured pace and provide item or logic based puzzles with the reward of more story. What does McPixel give the player for their actions?
One word: comedy. The scenes change, similar animations are re-appropriated in new contexts, and the music continues on; all in the name of comedy. It is a game that actively eschews mechanics for jokes, a rarity of the medium. Double Fine Productions has similar sensibilities, but does not limit their design choices to emphasize their gags; something that may have actually helped Brutal Legend be a little more focused. In essence, McPixel works purely as a joke delivery system, and it works brilliantly.
A Parting Question: would McPixel work as a flash video? Could the sole designer, Mikolaj “Sos” Kaminski, choose the best of his many sight gags and create a viral animated sensation? Possibly. However, I think there is something inherently special about what the feedback loop does for this experience. But, maybe I have just fried my brain on pixelated madness and can’t think straight. The conclusion I can make right now is that I love McPixel and it deserves to be played by everyone.