Jan 13, 2009, 10:02AM

Gaming as performance

Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat, wherein your control of a sophisticated game is reduced to banging on fake bongos.

A rather poetic way of romanticizing video games:

Not, please note, a modern, newfangled, automagic platform game like Assassin’s Creed. A proper, old-fashioned 2D platformer with ledges and enemies and timed swings and all the things that make you cry out for a nice crisp d-pad and a decently sprung jump button. Or, in the absence of those, perhaps at least something with more than two buttons which you can operate without having to pretend to be a toddler who just dropped a jam sandwich off his high chair.

So why go back to Jungle Beat? For a little reassuring schadenfreude that I’m not the only person who can have bad game ideas? No. Because it’s a dazzling, dizzying delight. Bad idea; brilliant game.


It turns out that what lurks inside Donkey Kong’s brilliance isn’t stupidity but truth. We spend a lot of time talking about games and films, but a much more useful corollary is music. The processes are spookily similar. Creators devise an experience, and commit it to code. The code then sits there, lifeless, until a performer picks it up. Then, through a complex tool which requires substantial manual dexterity to master, the performer interprets the experience the creator devised. No two people will play the code the same way. Some players will perform better than others. Some will get stuck and give up before the end.

The similarities between the gamer/game relationship and the musician/music relationship stand up to more scrutiny than almost any other reference point. Of course, I’d be the first to admit it’s a metaphor you can stretch too far: I’ve played a lot of multiplayer music matches, but even in the roughest of Scratch Messiahs, no-one ever teabagged me.

  • This game was terrific. I played it when it first came out, and though it was a little repetitive, it's a great time consumer. It's so much better than guitar hero and rock band because it gives no one false hope that they can actually play the bongos.

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