A Bird of a Different Colour

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I don’t tend to write reviews much anymore, but I’m going to go ahead and write a review for Flappy Bird. The sidescrolling “endless runner” was taken down from the App Store recently by its creator, Dong Nguyen, after facing a hurricane of obloquy and suspicion from press and audience alike. I’m doing this because it’s a good mobile game and I think it deserves a few more fair shakes before it gets lost in the mildewy shroud of this subculture’s collective memory.

Despite its reputation for being a mere clone of the “helicopter game” with “lifted assets” from the Mario universe, Flappy Bird isn’t doing anything to hide the fact that it’s inspired by these resonant and familiar icons. If anything, it openly embraces being a clever, fine-tuned variation on a common theme. The green Nintendo-style pipes—despite Nguyen being harangued partly for “ripping off” this historically commonplace object—are not only hand-drawn but used to charming effect to represent the gates that the helicopter would pass through in the traditional game. But Nguyen does one better and inverts the open space around the gates, so that instead of having one narrow block for the player to stealthily avoid, the player has to instead prepare for a pipe covering almost the length of the screen, with a narrow gap for the player to pass through with deft and well-timed taps. This simple inversion ramps up the difficulty of the game and also makes elegant use of the pipes.

It’s a variation on a couple of themes, or a track sampling, if you will. There’s nothing dishonest or plagiaristic about it, because the artist is making it painfully obvious that he’s rearranging these well-known elements into something new. Call it recycling, call it pastiche, whatever. In Flappy Bird, the variation is executed to such great effect, from the “coin clang” sound triggered by successfully navigating through pipe gates, to the white block pixel numbers keeping track of your score, to the bird itself that vaguely resembles a Mario enemy while still being original, and palette swaps on every restart with hues recalling typical Mario colours. Even the greenery and cityscape in the background are reminiscent of early Nintendo pixel art.

The aesthetics are rough but telling, not just because they represent a stunning intersection between iteration and innovation, but because they do it in a way that demonstrates the impact of simple, subtle changes executed cleverly. They say something about the simple mechanic of tapping a screen repeatedly in order to keep a bird afloat, at just the right height and angle to pass through pipe-gates. Like its decorations, the controls and mechanical elements of Flappy Bird are an exercise in what simple rearrangement can yield.

The game is frightfully difficult, removing the perpetual forward momentum found in most sidescrolling “endless runners,” and forcing the player to tap in order to account not only for the height of the bird and passage through the gates, but the movement of the bird itself. Stop tapping and the poor, hapless thing, too rotund for its wings to lift it, nosedives pathetically to the ground.

Ian Bogost has pointed out that Flappy Bird eschews a lot of the same tropes found in its predecessors while still basically resembling them:

“Set in a relief against its precursors, Flappy Bird seems positively minimalist. The zen garden school of design would encourage us to interpret this choice as more rather than less sophisticated: by removing all unnecessary elements, the purity of the endless runner is revealed. This sounds good on paper, but the experience of Flappy Bird betrays it. ‘Surely something else will happen?’ asks the Flappy Bird player, over and over. But nothing ever does. This isn’t a surplus of design thanks to unadornment, but a brazen opposition to modernist elegance by means of the austere design that tradition holds so dear. This discomfort echoes all throughout the Flappy Bird experience. Is it just a bad minimalist runner, or is it disparaging the genre it adopts?

The answer is neither: Flappy Bird is not amateurish nor sociopathic. Instead, it is something more unusual. It is earnest. It is exactly what it is, and it is unapologetic. Not even unapologetic—stoic, aloof. Impervious. Like a meteorite crashed through a desert motel lobby, hot and small and unaware.”

I’m not sure I agree (or can authoritatively declare either way) that the game or its developer are unaware. But I do get the sense that Flappy Bird isn’t particularly concerned with being an endless runner, nor with getting particularly possessive with any aspect of game design history. We forget often that games are an accumulation of junkyard parts and very rarely these holistic, well-oiled machines. As Bogost writes, “You don’t play a game to experience an idea so much as you do so in an attempt to get a broken machine to work again.”

I do agree that Flappy Bird is earnest if it’s anything at all. Its parts seem to explicitly be cobbled together from other things, yet as an arrangement of those things it’s this completely autonomous object. It’s hand-drawn but stylistically familiar; it’s simple to control but difficult to best; it picks and chooses from the genre and game it’s closest to, but to its own ends entirely. It doesn’t do this to streamline or to monetize, quite the opposite: it reconstitutes junky and clunky individual parts into a frustrating, kind of dopey-looking but smartly assembled, unified piece. It’s like stripping a bunch of old cars and using the parts to make a sputtering hovercraft. But it’s meant to sputter. Or something.

Like Bogost, Keith Stuart and Bennett Foddy have offered up similar explanations for part of Flappy Bird’s appeal: We play videogames because we enjoy the repetition, perhaps as a test of some sort of improvable skill or simply to waste time. Flappy Bird, with its simple yet challenging repetitive tapping mechanic, offers a tightly-coiled spring of both, simultaneously. Foddy offers a more in-depth analysis of the game’s design logic in Stuart’s piece:

“‘What makes Flappy Bird work particularly well is that it eliminates all extraneous complexity to focus on one very simple input mechanic,’ says game designer Bennett Foddy, who specialises in extremely unforgiving physics-based titles like Qwop and Girp. ‘It also adds depth to that simple foundation using one extremely elegant and subtle innovation: the width of the barriers is just slightly wider than the half-width of your flap/jump. This forces you to make a series of difficult split-second decisions about whether and when to flap while you’re inside the barriers. In my opinion this is a very small, humble piece of genius. Flappy Bird provides solid evidence that simply tuning a game well can be far more important, in terms of the player’s ultimate enjoyment, than adding clever mechanics or beautiful art.’”

Flappy Bird is earnest. Flappy Bird is humble. Flappy Bird is focused and single-minded and exists on its own terms. That’s true, but I’m also interested in Flappy Bird as a reassemblage, which is why I think Foddy’s breakdown of its design is extremely valuable. It’s helpful to know not just which parts are being used, but the way in which Nguyen put them together and refined them into something else. The simple fact that this game absolutely relies on a single, repetitive movement just to keep the bird up and moving is, I think, at least a convenient symbol for the strange and ironically individual pastiche that it is. Flappy Bird is a mirror reflection of the audience that spurned it.

Players like repetition not just within games, but in the business and culture that surrounds them. Well, let’s be fair, it isn’t just “players” plagued with this compulsion for reproduction and familiarity—contemporary culture is mired in it. We like to be comforted by specific kinds of normativities relevant to our own traditions and ideologies. That might explain Flappy Bird’s success somewhat but it also might explain its downfall. According to Robert Yang, part of the irrational, hypocritical and cruel pushback against the game’s success might very well be attributed to racism and stereotyping of Southeast Asian culture:

“Conceptually, the game resembles an undergraduate game dev student’s class project, though the execution is actually very tightly tuned and well-made. I suspect that if Nguyen were a white American, this would’ve been the story of a scrappy indie who managed to best Zynga with his loving homage to Nintendo’s apparent patent on green pixel pipes and the classic “helicopter cave” game genre.

Instead, Dong Nguyen committed the crime of being from Vietnam, where Electronic Arts or Valve or Nintendo do not have a development office. The reasoning is that no one ‘outside of games’ can become so successful, except through deceit. The derivative nature of Flappy Bird’s assets and mechanics was taken as confirmation that technologically-backward Southeast Asians were ‘at it again’ — stealing and cloning hard-won ‘innovation in games’ invented by more-beloved developers.”

If Yang is right—and I have a terrible gut feeling he is—then part of the resistance and accusations of plagiarism against the game have more to do with Nguyen not being familiar enough to dominant modes and identities in the West, and the impulse to indict him became an unconscious, kneejerk imperative. It’s sad and shameful and hypocritical not least because Nguyen is not guilty of anything that Western art hasn’t been doing for… well, forever. Mimesis and reproduction can be self-interested, opportunistic, even propagandist, but they can also be  fundamental ways in which we communicate and reassemble ideas. In fact, the concept of mimesis has existed in art discourse since at least the time of Plato.  It sounds facile, but new ideas are built on old ones, and it can be impossible to tell which particular variation of an idea will become the most popular and diffuse.

More to the point, Yang is right to point out that while Nguyen did a lot to refine the game he made, he specifically didn’t do things that would encourage monetization—like delay restarting to advertise virtual goods. In Yang’s words, “Why would a supposedly-greedy mobile game developer monetize their game so inefficiently?”

There is little to suggest that Nguyen ripped anyone off or employed shady business practices to amplify his own success; most of that amounts to rumour and speculation. And while Nguyen made a fair bit of money off Flappy Bird, one of the most refreshing things about playing the game was that it was uncluttered. In simply playing the game, sure, I saw banner ads—discreetly and unobtrusively at the top of the screen—but never once was I asked to buy anything. Bogost is right about the game in the sense that it simply exists—or existed—and Foddy is right in that what made Flappy Bird distinct wasn’t in what it included from other games or genres, but what it cut away, refined, tuned up.

Flappy Bird is and was a wonderful, enraging, adorable and yet hideous pastiche of mashed together parts, but ones selectively chosen and altered for it to be what it was. If you have it on your mobile device, I suggest you keep it there as a memento. It was a variation on a common theme in a very, very weird key. It was a bird with wings too small for it to fly, but did miraculously  through repetitive, memetic, meditative tapping. But we weren’t good enough for it: we stopped the rhythmic tapping, and let it nosedive into the ground.