Modeling Spatial Game Design with Pinball

As a child I spent an obscene amount of time playing three virtual pinball tables. I’ve forgotten this, or maybe it’s been mentally blocked. I am earnestly talking about twenty hours or more playing Pinball on the NES, 3D Pinball for Windows – Space Cadet for, uh, windows, (yeah that default windows pinball game that isn’t actually 3D) and the casinopolis stage in Sonic Adventure. Pinball, being adapted from analog arcade games, can’t really deviate from a specific ruleset, otherwise it’s not pinball. Its simplicity manifests longstanding and sharp game design ethos. I want to try to unpack some relationships pinball has in a broader sense of gamedev.

Pinball is presented, viewed, and arranged very similarly to single table score attack games, like Breakout or Space Invaders. This is evidence of something analog, hundreds of years old, obviously influencing how we play today. It sounds silly like this but we wouldn’t have R-Type without pinball! While the concept of a score attack arcade game shifts depending on platform demands and influence from material history, pinball is just pinball. Such a strict adherence is an anomaly in game subgenres and mediums.

Digital pinball is genuinely strange. Analog simulations are always uncanny (say golf, or renditions of chess and other boardgames) because they remain imperfect, impossible, fictional in how they’re implemented and (usually, typically) how a player interfaces with the game. In other words, an action game played with a controller or keyboard is radically different than a pinball cabinet; an unreal feeling reality. So, I would say digital pinball is an activity naturally off-balance, though felt subconsciously if anything. This unease feeds into the core play loop of pinball, which is timing and anticipation.

Trying to parry an attack in Dark Souls or perfect dodge in Breath of the Wild are modern applications of distilling pinball’s play loop. Tense, slightly random, waitfests that rely on visual cues. Once chance to succeed and catastrophe to failure. Pinball has no release, though, it cycles through death defying performance, to calm, to strike for life anew, and then to watching and waiting in cruel anticipation again. While pinball is blatantly a stupid time waster, I say this as someone who enjoys playing pinball probably too much, it’s a self-effacing struggle while in play, justified existentially. Everything is in flux, you have one, often short, chance. Posing again and again: did you succeed?

Pinball was a NES launch title, bears the sparse, black presentation of Nintendo’s early Famicom games. I’ve always liked how calm and disconcerted those games came across. Then you press start it’s just a crude game of baseball or whatever. In this case, pinball. Rather than try to simulate or emulate the style of a pinball cabinet—reference the busy, dense, also Nintendo published Pin BotPinball is sparse, floating, representationally conceived. Everything essential for the game is present. Which isn’t dissimilar to how games were around the time it came out: think of any famous NES game and they’re aesthetic collections by nature. What’s interesting is how they compare. Pin Bot’s compulsion to simulate something real despite the impossibility, an aesthetic divide that is becoming more and more prominent in modern videogame development.

lines of action

Right-o, this is a screenshot of Nintendo’s Pinball by the way. I’m going to borrow an animation term and call these crude arrows I drew lines of action. Every single environment or level or architecture or whatever you want to call inhabited spaces in a videogame has lines like these. They are an affectation of how the level is shaped and/or how the player expects objects in a level to interact with fellows in the space. (The simplicity of Pinball lets me highlight most of the lines really fast. Comprehensively keeping track of these lines in the fluid, player controlled framing of modern 3D games can be staggeringly difficult.)

Identifying lines of action is one thing, but they are felt rather than seen. The influence of these lines when playing this table is an unceasing focus on the paddles. They’re already the fulcrum of control for the player, so a sliding, crescendo-like intensity is generated. When the ball falls through this open middle area it seems like a suction, an expression of the unavoidable. Wherever the ball goes, it’s difficult to think of anything but reacting correctly. Because of the lines at all times I feel fussy about the next time to hit the ball.

lines of lines of

Immediately you can see how the wide, vase-like shape of the second table neutralizes the kind of pointed suction the first table had. The v-shape at the bottom draws death but is overridden by all the cramped space. Those bumpers dominate the negative space on the board, giving off an indeterminate feeling. Rather than having the player’s attention kept with the paddles and a loop of action, disorder is fostered. I’m worried about the left and right gutters, but otherwise feel tense, unsure where my attention should be fixed. The lines state anything could happen. Noted, they shy away from pointing to exits (the pink gate and the dark red warp). This is a flux with no escape.

dumb lines

What’s garish about simulated tables, or rather even real pinball tables, is that the lines dictated by the board’s graphic design, rather than by the shape of the board. Which is in some ways obvious, because it’s not like a pinball cabinet is going to be shaped in a way that can’t fit in a cabinet. Though as seen, the placement and shape of scoring obstacles does draw lines of action, but I feel they’re unsubtly overwritten by very loud graphic cues. You can look at the original without my lines on them and see what I mean.

I haven’t played on a real pinball table since… I dunno, I was a preteen probably. Meaning I can’t state accurately how fast they are or how they feel. Space Cadet is fast and explosive (I played a recent modern table emulator and the slippery, sudden movement felt similar, probably a sign of “realism”). Keeping the ball in play feels most important with these lines, or really, the board itself strives to keep it flying forward more than back. Having to actually hit the ball seems to be communicated as a messy obligation, instant, out of the way. It’s not really the movement of the ball that matters but what the ball moves through.

I’d make an assumption that the studied uniformity, or commercial sweetspot, of how pinball tables were assembled put an eventual decentralization on the core play loop of the game. That is, to someone who enjoys pinball, someone who has played many cabinets, they’re not going to be moved or impressed by the weight and basic motion of a pinball, so tables had to become object orientated. With some degree of restraint, scoring objects became of the focus of design, prioritizing flashy aesthetics, and more interesting consequences for collision. I think the lines of action reflect such intention.

Nintendo’s Pinball is a style of gamedev I would call representational. The game is an achievement of something like pinball, understood to be aesthetically pinball, but is abstracted, fictional, impossible. Super Mario Bros. is representational, most retro games are representational. Space Cadet is instead simulated. Rather than inhabit a pinball aesthetic, it strives for accuracy, modelling what pinball is actually like, opposed to freeform interpretation. It’s still a model though. The weakness of simulation is a cursed approximation. Representational works have nothing to match, they simply use known verbs and aesthetics as a shorthand for expression. Videogames, as you know, regularly mix these two aesthetics. Modern console games are becoming increasingly simulated, but still fall on representational expressions (often called “videogamey”). It might be just the path of least resistance when it comes to understanding 3D space; 3D demands simulation in ways 2D could not accommodate for.

Simulation almost always feels uncanny. As of this writing, there’s a backlash over animations in Mass Effect: Andromeda, assumingly for not being accurate enough. There’s a baseline of expectation for realism that shifts and expands as tech capabilities get better. What’s being accelerated to? What is it that we desire when we desire realistic rendering? This lays dormant in my mind. If virtual is indistinguishable from physical, then it only offers convenience. Videogames appeal to me for being separate and equal, for accompanying the physical, for uniquely texturing it. When striving for naturalism or realism, it seems like developers are striving for replacement. For pinball, the endgame occurred. Emulated tables act as preservation, replacing the precarity and awkwardness of significant coin-operated machines, simply because they struggle to exist under market conditions. Simulations can actually replace genuine articles.

It’s important aesthetics which aren’t interpreted as an accelerating replacement, that aren’t predicated on filling an advertised lack in my life, start gaining cultural momentum. I don’t want videogames to be a field of imitation. I don’t want to constantly inhabit the ghosts of the past. Consider a third school of thought. An application of game development that is defined basically as neither representation nor simulation. Game development eroding symbols, eliminating context, channeling the nether. Opposed to the comforting, pandering result that is the videogame industry’s endpoint. Tentative approximations, if any. Game development that prioritizes an artist’s expression over audience entitlement. Art that imitates little and refuses to be imitated. I’ve written so much about this school of game development and yet haven’t given it a name. A name simple, known, effective: I speak of abstract game development. I have another pinball table to show.


Screen 4 from hey ekjoeihoe. I have no idea what sort of inside joke ekjoeihoe is supposed to be. Where are the lines of action? There are none, or there are too many. Play occurs only on the top slope, not that it’s at all apparent where the flippers are or the spring launcher (they do exist in the game). Three fourths of the image are dedicated to that cyclonic torrent of color. I see, I feel, a violence that is effortlessly contained. It’s not bursting, rather it’s become inert. A cascade falls below, spaced out, then bunching, going straight through a sort of mountainous skyline.

Rather than extol its virtues, I want to say that this is self-evidently beautiful to me. It looks even more incredible in motion. Since only a fifth of the screen facilitates play, I feel that it’s almost an ode to the violent overabundance of aesthetic in videogames, an easily contained context that grows out of action but fails to inform it. Though its immediate function is its own waste and stupidity, a frustrating uselessness is a more immediate expression than what pinball ever could offer me in its typical state.

It’s thanks to pling pling that hey ekjoeihoe exists. That’s an overabundant trend; it’s thanks to scrappy, accessible game making tools that basically any abstract game design sees the light of day. Not everything can be communicated with green grass and high tides, no one should fill their lives with only perfect images forever. I don’t have much of a screed this time though. Representation, abstract, simulation, these are just words explaining virtual worlds’ relationship to the physical one. Videogames are ultimately still beholden to the virtual. These schools are all related and inform each other. Through understanding a balanced appreciation and recognition of what each approach can accomplish, I think videogames have a chance.

hey ekjoeihoe can be played. I also recommend these tables.

i woulda made a pling pling table too but i’m working on dgc zine check that out

i’ve been forgoting to post the vextro patreon lol help me do this! i want anyone to write here for art’s sake!



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