Monday, May 09, 2011

[Spring Thing 2011] Bonehead

Bonehead is actually the third Spring Thing game I have played, but I have put off writing about the other two because I may want to write something a bit bigger than a quick review on my blog. (No promises, of course) These two other games were The Promise, a game with a lot of good stuff and an ending I hated, and Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis, which it would be hard to recommend too highly. (Though check out Jimmy Maher's blog for another opinion.)

So, Bonehead by Sean M. Shore. This game is about baseball, and specifically, about what is apparently an infamous game of baseball in which Fred Merkle either made a stupid blunder or, depending on your perspective, was the victim of what RPG players will call a rules lawyer. The structure of the piece is interesting: you are told in the beginning that this is going to be the worst day of Merkle's life, and you get non-interactive flash forwards to prove the point. It is possible to escape from your fate, but only through early endings, that is, to what feels to the player as losing endings; while the final ending, in which disaster strikes, is the one that is hardest to get to. It works, perhaps because the disaster is not something for Merkle to be truly ashamed of? Or is the relation between player success and character success even easier to sever that we have thought?

My enjoyment of this piece was mostly theoretical, because it was about baseball. I know nothing about baseball. Well, I know you have to hit a ball and then run from base to base to score a point, but that is where my knowledge ends. Now the game realises that not all its players will have the required background knowledge, and attempts to remedy this; but the attempts are not very successful. For instance, you can take batting practice. I assume this is meant to teach me how to bat, and thus prepare me for the real game. But what happens is this:
> swing early to opposite
You keep your hands back and execute an inside-out swing, slapping the pitch through the hole on the right side of the infield.
This means nothing to me. My first thought was that maybe I should warn someone that there is a hole in the field, before someone falls into it. More problematically, I have no idea whether "slapping a pitch through the hole on the right side of the infield" is a good thing or a bad thing; and thus, I have no idea whether "swinging early to opposite" was a good or a bad decision. A training session in which I cannot distinguish positive from negative feedback is not very effective.

Later in the game, it was clear that I was getting negative feedback:
Matty deals to Kling.  It’s a fadeaway – a Matty specialty – and it runs right in on Kling’s hands.  He makes a defensive swing, and taps a slow roller towards Art Devlin at third.  Kling dashes towards first base as Devlin barehands the ball.

> catch ball
The ball isn’t within reach.

Devlin starts to throw, but sees that you’re not covering the bag.  He pockets the ball rather than risk throwing it into right field somewhere.  The cranks are screaming bloody murder, all of it directed at you.
But I have no idea what I did wrong. I should have "covered the bag"? What bag? Why? How? Should I throw myself on top of it? Pull a cover around it? Write a piece of journalism about it? I was continually reduced to reading the hints and typing the commands it gave me. In the present case, doing this cleared up the situation (apparently, covering a bag means putting your foot on the base; and apparently, you have to do this before people are allowed or inclined to throw a ball at you), but all sense of choice or agency was effectively killed.

Most hilarious was the moment where I got the following command:
“Fred, Art: you two creep up a little bit when he squares around to bunt and be prepared to field the ball if it’s hit your way.”
Sure, man. Creep up. When he squares around to bunt. Then field the ball. No problem. Except -- what on earth are you talking about?

Here's the main point I want to make: I love the game for doing this. Sure, I cannot really play it, but who cares? A game about baseball should be about baseball. It shouldn't cater to the lowest common denominator of baseball knowledge. It should be passionate about baseball. It should exhibit all the lovingly researched historical and gameplay details that Bonehead exhibits. I want to see more games that dare to sacrifice accessibility to a broad audience in order to increase interest to a narrow audience.

Of course, I also hope that some of those games will include me among the narrow audience.