Machine Doubling

DATA_DOUBLING grips me because it’s difficult to play. I mean that more literally than most, it’s difficult to perform the basic action that keeps it going. Arcade-styled games have an expectation to deliver some kind of hook. Vlambeer games are seductive kinetically. Terry Cavanagh draws a player in with careful patterns and pulsing music. Phone games employ a lot of techniques to communicate that its play is lasting from a single try (clean aesthetics, incremental rewards, Innovative-Mechanics), even if it’s just another autorunner or whatever.

I’ve given a lot of sarcasm to game jams before, but an interesting effect is enabling a space for devs to not overthink or overdesign their games, and not be judged for what would normally be seen as lazy or uninspired game design. I mean, I’m all for games made in minutes, but I get the feeling most people wouldn’t feel the same way. DATA_DOUBLING was made in an hour for onehourjam. I can’t imagine what it’s like to make a game in one hour. It takes me longer than an hour to come to a decision on, like, what I’m going to have for a meal. That one-hour-ness is undoubtedly reflected in the game’s form and function. Its why it feels so sharp and unpretentious. A game content with being a single idea.

The game displays in a portrait just about three inches wide. Large, blocky, inelegant text wraps around twice despite its short length, stating my yet-to-be-had-score. At the bottom are instructions to press 1+0 to start the game, leaving a gaping rectangle in between. I recall the black title screens of older games on the NES and Atari. They’re like placards, placeholders, stopping points out of necessity. They keep the floodgate of “game” back while betraying nothing of or about what’s there. Their purpose is to be wiped away, yet their stillness is infectious, their suggested calm and reflection a statement.

Unity between true and false, a state inbetween, unintentionally representing a state of being; pressing the keyboard combo 1+0 starts DATA_DOUBLING. A cage of white walls touch down at the, for some reason, purple bottom of the column. If only for a millisecond, as the walls immediately retract. Thick UI bars that hold and contain double as a timer. A column of 011101000 splays down in the exact middle. Numbers infinite, random, repeating. They represent exact input: my right hand presses zero, my left hand presses one, and one, and one, zero, one, zero, zero, zero. Sight and reaction are barely differentiated. I feel especially flawed, incapable, human because of the difference and the delay. Each wrong input and the purple bar shrinks a third. A correct input slightly increases the timer. It’s incredibly easy to make three mistakes.

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The bar drains faster and gains less as the game goes on, putting immense pressure on me to perform. I can see it drain peripherally and I inevitably panic. Something about the barely changing, extremely minimalist set-up of the game sucks out my ability to concentrate. I find myself hesitating constantly, losing the ability to register when a 1 becomes a 0 because the difference feels slight. Even though it isn’t. Key pressing in funnel space is intense, hypnotic, and so very simple. Despite the simplicity DATA_DOUBLING is still very difficult to keep in play. I have the absolute confidence that, if anything, I’ll run out of time, I won’t make a mistake, and nothing about the game dissuades that confidence. Because of that confidence, my weaknesses and vulnerabilities are magnified, even when I’m aware of that. And I screw up and the game ends.

I’m overly fascinated by score attack games because they subvert standard game design (and sure, they were once standard). Instead of overcoming challenges to actively seek a resolution, the ideal goal is for the game to never end. This goal is also impossible, generally speaking, because the player won’t be good enough. Inherent to a score attack game is a standoff against the impossible and an embrace of the inevitable. I’m able to get lost in that kind of drama because it’s both immediate and not compelling. It’s terrifying, but it’s done as much as I want, because of my own will. With those boundaries it feels fine to get lost and come back.

I don’t get immersion. Software being a sort of artistic, outputting thing is how I’ve interacted with videogames after childhood. I guess with chronic pain and mental distress it’s hard to just “get lost” in something else. There’s always some real world reminder tugging at me layers down.

The exception is when I desire to recreate a kind of incredible, intense performance that I can see existing within the game. An intensity that necessitate diverting all of my mental ability. In that I can lose myself into some other and it feels weird to me. At least, as a break, it’s a fine thing from time to time. DATA_DOUBLING is obviously boring compared to say a shmup, or a fighting game, or a speed run; rulesets that excel at getting a player on the same wavelength as the machine. However, it’s a marvel to me at how it can achieve a similar result because it’s boring. Because of its tunnel-vision-like presentation. Because of its blinding, singular focus.

Saying that I can lose myself is vague and broad. For me, I mean something like a draining of sensations. An acute feeling of becoming a kind of tool or utensil. What my keyboard is supposed to do, what my computer is meant to do, is blocked out. My hands dedicated to this singular task because it’s able to take up this much of me. When it’s intense enough, I feel connected to the machine in a way that could be called post-human.

DATA_DOUBLING has a frame story, surprisingly. Found only on the game’s tagline, only when browsing the game in a relevant itch.io window: “You are a hard drive backing up data. Sound exciting?” Though I’m sure this was meant to be a flippant addition by its developer, there’s latent terror in how the machinelike nature of feeling and interacting with the game line up with its stated intent.

Rather, I’m taken aback at this disfantasy (that is dismal fantasy, my now coined opposite word for power fantasy, thanks!). Say for some reason a being of sentience was required to do repetitive tasks. Except, for some reason, they had an error margin. They possessed calculated, limited cognitive ability, as to not be too frightening to those who exploit their labor. They are a complicated, enigmatic machine, but their only job, forever, eternally is to copy ones and zeroes. In DATA_DOUBLING I get to experience that and thankfully leave when it’s over. It is horribly boring, all-consuming; it is delayed existential terror.

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get DATA_DOUBLING here

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