Notes on Eye Poppers: Delight in the Grotesque

Eye Poppers by Espion Games slots easily into the “time-waster” category of free-to-play browser games. But that’s alright, because it doesn’t aspire to much more, and contained little projects like these can be enticing omens for a developing artist.

Playable right now on the game’s page, Eye Poppers takes only a few minutes to play and relies on a very simple conceit: “roll your eyes so hard that they fall out of your head.” This is done by alternating between keyboard keys mapped to each of the eyes of the petrified face that appears in the game window. Each eye can be moved using one of four keyboard keys (QWAS for the left eye and OPKL for the right) and each button will pull the eye in one of four directions. It takes finding the right rhythm with all four buttons, but eventually the player can get a nice roll going, and with enough momentum can force the eyeball from its socket. Once both have been popped out, they’ll hang tenuously from the socket on a strand like 2 livid pendula, and can then be idly bobbed around until the player ultimately loses interest.

I’ve written about a number of toy games like this and have made a few of my own. They’re great mini-projects, especially for working out an aesthetic choice or a simple mechanic. Digital toys are usually treated as ephemera—much more explicitly than other sorts of digital objects—but they may also be viewed as a kind of study or sketch. Eye Poppers in particular is visually unlike most of the other five games in Espion Game’s library, with slight exception of Balloon Battle, which has a similarly hand-drawn, ink-stained aesthetic and use of macabre imagery (in this case, skulls), but with a preppier, pink-and-blue pastel colour palette. Eye Poppers is still bright, erring more toward brash neon colours, but combines the colours in a way that shift the game tonally from cutesy to grotesque. Faces, and particularly the eyes, load in a variety of contrasting colours that create an unsettlingly affronting and morbid effect.

At all times, in the top-left corner of the window is an empty jar, and text next to it that reads “I’ve decided to give my collection of used batteries away…” and then, in all caps beneath the face, “FREE OF CHARGE”. The game contains no sound, save for the little “pop” of the eye exploding from its socket, and a horrid squelching noise that’s triggered at the start screen. The tone is eerie but it isn’t dark, ghastly but not grim. It’s gross in a playful way. The eyes have some jiggle and when they collide, they bounce off each other! The irises roll independently of the whites (or greens, as the case may be)! One player can enjoy popping out both eyes, working on their coordination so that they can eventually knock out both at once. Or, two players can pick an eye and then delight in trying to entangle them, or bouncing them into each other. All the while, the face will remain rigidly fixed in whatever expression appeared when the game loaded.

Eye Poppers is one of three games in Espion Games’s repertoire with a tendency toward co-op design, along with Balloon Battle and a sports game called Keeper Keeper. But the game feels more like Jimmy Andrews’s and Loren Schmidt’s Realistic Kissing Simulator, or the uncomfortably physical games of Bennett Foddy (QWOP, GIRP). There’s plenty of academic inquiry into the nature of embodiment in digital spaces, and the particular ways that games can make us relate to our own bodies, whether by alienating us from them or by making us hyper-aware of them. This is one of the peculiar provinces of digital art, that Cronenbergian preoccupation with blurring physiology and technology. Outside academic spaces I think this is actually an aspect of games that goes under-discussed, or at least not discussed in a way that’s particularly refreshing or nuanced (for example, the entire discourse around “violence in videogames” and whether or not games encourage real-world violence.)

Obviously, Eye Poppers itself is not that deep, but even a surface-level reading allows for a consideration of how games can allow us to play with the plasticity of the human body in ways that would not be possible, or at least advisable, in real life. This is how games can actually feel visceral in a meaningful way, and goes to show how much aesthetic and tonal framing can affect our experience of otherwise unpleasant concepts. Sometimes, there is delight in the grotesque.