Before Angry Birds, there was Wii Sports. There was the stunt ramp of Grand Theft Auto, the big air of SSX, the power slide of countless racers. There was the lob of Halo’s plasma grenade, the rocket jump of Quake. And throughout it all, the man of 10,000 jumps: Mario, king of the video-game arc.
It is a primal video-game pleasure, the arc, so common as to be practically invisible. Yet it was there at the beginning, with Spacewar!’s lonesome sun luring players into strategic curves through its computer space. It has persisted ever since in nearly any game with reliable physics. The entire platformer genre, in fact, owes its continued existence to the arc’s inexhaustible joys. We launch, we linger, we land.
Our first experiences with the arc naturally come from life: That intake of breath with each free throw, each fly ball, each bowling hook to spare. The carnival ring toss and quarter flip, the brief lull at the top of a roller coaster hill — all provoke giddy anticipation as we experience a distilled moment of life under gravity. I imagine our ancestors perfecting the spear throw that could bring down beasts far above their fighting weight. Even if we’ve forgotten exactly how to calculate parabolas on paper, our lizard brain is always poised to do the math in real time.
So when I first played Angry Birds, I immediately felt its appeal. This was not just the simple joy of shooting furious cartoon faces at rickety cartoon shanties. This was using a slingshot to fling said faces in a familiar arc and then seeing what happened. Hardcore gamers griped about the dicey physics and the role of, gasp, luck. But the often unforeseeable results were a deep part of the draw. In this way Angry Birds was both lifelike and Vegas-like, and in as much as it frustrated the gamer’s dream of perfect control and reward for mastery, it kept most players coming back for more.
The latest iteration, Angry Birds Star Wars, seeks to rein in any randomness or goofing around. In fact, its entire trajectory is toward greater precision. It takes the original black bomb bird and Kenobis him into a Force-wielding master who pushes debris not explosively but in the exact direction he chooses. The beelining yellow wedge bird is given a handsome scruffiness and a blaster, winnowing his former thrust to a laser point. All told, the new Tatooine and Death Star and Hoth levels are not really designed to reward willy-nilly bird-tossing. The Vader helmets of the higher levels, especially Dagobah, emphasize this by force-holding debris in place and acting as focal points to be either targeted or avoided. This is what Angry Birds Star Wars now aspires to: clever puzzles with increasingly singular solutions. Less chaos, more order.
This is most clearly indicated in the slingshot itself. In the first Angry Birds, you swiped your bird back and let it fly. Much of the fun came in trying to predict just exactly where it would land. In Angry Birds Rio, a limited power-up was added that displayed the exact flight path of your bird. And in Angry Birds Space, the beginning of your trajectory was always shown so as to clarify the effects of planetoids and their local gravities. Angry Birds Star Wars continues this trend but applies it in every case, even planetside. The effect of showing your arc is not to make the game easier but to allow the levels to become harder. It assumes, correctly, that everyone has played some entry in the series, and so by giving players more information on-screen, it can ask even more of their three-star skill sets.
This adds up to more complex levels, more gratifying challenges, and more varied architecture. It’s probably the best game in the Angry Birds series so far. And yet … some element of playfulness is missing. Did the world really go nuts for just a refined physics puzzler with the slightest bit of avian ‘tude? This is not to blame Rovio for a stellar update to its series, one that could have gone so wrong with lazy licensing. But it is to note the trajectory of its many sequels: toward refinement, polish, cleverness. Angry Birds Star Wars takes out much of the guesswork, when it was the guesswork that made the original so appealing. Those simpler pleasures of predicting your own arc and then watching the half-intended consequences play out, which captivated so many early birders, have been left behind.
Time Surfer is another mobile game that takes a proven pleasure — in this case the joyful sine wave of Tiny Wings — and attempts to improve upon it. Tiny Wings made the most of its single-touch gameplay by reversing the jump button and offering instead the dive. This shifted the focus of its arcs from the liftoff to the descent. Actually, this does not fully describe the arcs in Tiny Wings, since its hills and hollers trace under-arcs as well as over-arcs. So when you are really in its groove, your perfectly timed plunge will lead directly into the dip of a mirror arc, which will then thrust your flightless bird toward even more ecstatic heights. To really fly in Tiny Wings, you have to know when to take your finger off the screen.
Time Surfer looks at first glance like a science fiction reskinning of similar pleasures. You dive into cosmic valleys and soar among the retro heavens. You even unlock a DeLorean and tuxedoed Terminator. Immediately, though, you notice that the dives aren’t quite as tight, the arcs awfully floaty. Its primary conceit, the ability to rewind time and course-correct, would appear to make up for this. But as it turns out, rewinding arcs on the fly to create better arcs is an unsatisfying business. The player feels less of a sense of responsibility for paths taken, as survival ultimately comes down to having enough time juice. Worse, that euphoric flow that comes from linking one smooth arc to the next is constantly interrupted by jittery second thoughts and double takes. You end up getting caught in some tragic death loop out of La Jetée. Even here, you cannot escape time.
What Time Surfer offers instead is speed. Hitting the right boosts, not gradually building momentum, allows your surfer to grind the rings of Saturn and hug the galactic ceiling. To do really well, in fact, you’ll need to stay off the ground altogether and ride the crest of a chaotic wave you only haphazardly mounted in the first place. In this way, Time Surfer is to Tiny Wings what Sonic is to Mario. And if we’ve learned anything from the history of Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s that it is very difficult to build a good game around stylish haste alone. Straight lines and zippy power-ups just don’t have the legs of a good arc. And so Time Surfer, cool as it may be, can only skim the surface of its forerunner’s wave. It never manages to capture what is actually addictive about the arc.
The best mobile game I played last year makes no such mistakes. ZiGGURAT takes creator Tim Rogers’s deep feel for video-game arcs and totally rethinks them for the touch screen. This will not come as a surprise to those familiar with Rogers’s writing about arc-heavy classics such as Super Mario Bros. 3. ZiGGURAT places the last human on Earth atop a tiered mountain and asks the player to survive endless waves of alien freaks. It takes the last stand quite literally and locks your feet, as well as the screen, in place. There’s no running or jumping to escape, no movement whatsoever; that arc is already complete, you’ve landed. You are rooted to a classic arcade scenario in which your ultimate failure is foretold.
In ZiGGURAT, you are the unmoved mover at the exact intersection of a world of arcs. Alien freaks bound toward you, and off each other, along zealous parabolas; the laser balls of your powerful but finicky gun gently curve with each release; in the background, the sun sets and the moon explodes. Your entire field of view around the titular ziggurat marks out an arc on-screen. The touch controls smartly flatten your aiming arc to a slider along the dead zone at the bottom of the screen, and like both Angry Birds and Tiny Wings, the game asks you to focus on when to lift your finger, not when to make contact. Complicating all this are the oscillations of your enemies’ eyes (bigger eye, greater collateral damage) and those of your own gun. For while charging your weapon is necessary, catching it at the finite apex of its power is never assured, and overcharging produces a piddling reply. The player must factor in all of this at once and find the right moment, again and again, to aim and release. To last even a few minutes, ZiGGURAT demands, quite simply, total and complete arc thinking.
There’s other satisfaction to be had in ZiGGURAT as well — that of crowd control, chain reactions, and last-minute saves. In all this, it wisely allows no pausing because it understands what it means to interrupt a game mid-arc. And its game-over screen, a luminescent retro red accompanied by a digital death rattle, manages to perfectly capture the spirit of the video-game apocalypse. The entire experience is so pure, whole, and final that one can only appeal to Tim Rogers’s deep game sense and implore him to make many more astonishing games but never, ever a sequel.
All of this brings up a more difficult question: What are we to make of this arc business — especially in these mobile games that even games-as-art champions don’t take very seriously? You may have noticed that I’ve only glancingly invoked the more philosophical video-game arcs — those of story, character, history, a human life. It’s not that these arcs have no place in video games or are unrelated to the kind of pleasures I’ve already described. They, in fact, are indicative of the arc’s broader resonance. But we often jump to such familiar language too quickly and stop short of grappling with how these humble, everyday, physical game arcs are experienced by the player. How these games can distill our daily ups and downs, the aspirations of our earthbound bodies and the destiny of physics, into just a few hot minutes.
It is this kind of arc, the shape of life under gravity, that games can engage so powerfully, and so playfully. But to describe it? Video games speak in a language we can hear but not repeat, read but not yet write. We’ve been thinking in video games and through video games for decades now, but we still struggle to articulate our experiences with the gamiest of games. Instead, we reach for narrative legitimacy using the language of literature and film. We chase those games with serious themes and mature content, hoping they will prove some “final arrival” of the medium. When in truth, Super Mario 3D Land has more to say about life on Earth than BioShock.
This is why the casual revival of arcade sensibilities on our phones and tablets is so thrilling. These games are speaking directly to the nervous system, in a metaphoric language unique to video games, and we intuit their meanings far better than we can express. The arc is a vital element of this language, familiar to anyone on Earth with a body, and one games have put to particularly evocative use over the years. It’s not an accident that Mario, paragon of the embodied arc, has reigned over gaming for so long. He’s been in the arc business for generations, and has given form to some rather fundamental human experiences in ways no other medium can. Each jump remains a small, joyful act of gravitational rebellion. We fling fireballs or birds or ourselves toward uncertain ends, and the most basic questions still resonate: How far can I go? Where will I land?