When examining Pipe Trouble, a recently released app for iOS and certain Android devices, I’m immediately reminded of what Clint Hocking (of Far Cry 2 fame) explored in his GDC talk two years ago, Dynamics: The State of the Art. In about the middle of his presentation, he engages in an exercise where he leads his audience in a dynamic re-imagining of Tetris, an experiment of how “narrative can influence… dynamic meaning.” The foremost example is where the play area of Tetris now assumes the identity of a train yard in a World War II era Warsaw ghetto, and the objective is to pack people (the bricks) into boxcars and ship them off to concentration camps. The various iconic shapes are rationalized as the terrified people clinging to their friends and loved ones as they dread their fate, and the line clears are boxcars being shipped off once they become completely full. The end game or failure state remains the same, with the train yard being flooded with half full boxcars being unable to leave. Tetris is still Tetris (the metrics and objectives are the same as ever), but with this narrative, our experience with the game changes. Do we become the obedient overseer efficiently sending off boxcars full of innocents to concentration camps, or do we sabotage the Nazi effort with half-full boxcars grinding the train yard to a halt?
Pipe Trouble seems to be the application of Clint Hocking’s narrative and dynamic re-imagining of Tetris (whether conscious or not) onto the classic game Pipe Mania (or: that obnoxious hacking mini-game from Bioshock). Your task is to build a pipeline through various stages consisting of natural landscapes and rural communities, attempting to satisfy the demands of both the local farmer on the screen’s left (respect the environment and local community interests) and the corporate bigwig on the screen’s right (build efficiently, on time and on budget). This narrative will immensely affect how you approach the game, as you’ll quickly be met with tough decisions that demand compromise.
The core gameplay is, more or less, as you might expect: the play area is a grid, and you lay sections of pipe on the landscape, one by one, to complete the pipeline. What’s fascinating, however, is how each stage, from the third one onwards, consists of a landscape which presents its own unique set of ethical dilemmas to navigate. A lake stands in the way of the pipeline, and you can either take the short route (finish ahead of schedule and under budget, but aggravate the locals by uprooting a small forest) or the long route (respect the environment, but enrage the energy conglomerate by losing money on a meandering pipeline.) In certain cases, it will be impossible to satisfy both parties. Heck, sometimes it may be impossible to satisfy anyone at all.
Pipe Trouble, then, is an important game. Its narrative heavily impacts its dynamics, and thereby influences the player and their experiences with the game as a result. This is all genuinely wonderful and fascinating stuff. What’s perhaps less wonderful (and perhaps by just as much more fascinating) is what has been the reaction to Pipe Trouble so far.
In Western Canada, pipelines, such as the highly controversial Keystone XL, have been a hot topic for quite some time. Pipe Trouble was developed and published as yet another voice in the debate, with $10,000 in partial funding from TVO (a publicly funded Ontario television broadcaster). Local news outlets in both Alberta and Ontario (as well as the national CBC and presumably many others) have picked up the story rather swiftly for such a modest project, with the more conservative outlets (such as the execrable Sun Media) being quick to condemn the game for being dangerous and irresponsible (The Sun’s headline? Pipeline Propaganda from TVO / You too can play eco-terrorist with taxpayer-funded game)
“It’s disappointing to see a taxpayer-funded game and organization depict the blowing up of pipelines,” says Alison Redford, the premier of Alberta.
It is true that the pipelines of Pipe Trouble are vulnerable to the explosive measures of in-game environmental activists should your projects exploit and abuse the environment too much, as is (evidently) uncomfortably clear in the promotional trailer for the game. Indeed local opposition to pipelines have resulted in their bombings in northeastern British Columbia. But then again it is also true thatPipe Trouble is a companion to a documentary film entitled Trouble in the Peace (itself costing $80,000 and also financed in part by TVO) about such unfortunate realities. Both projects are reflections and reactions to these unfortunate situations and circumstances, yet the videogame is the thing which riles people up the most.
And this is what I find to be the most fascinating: Depending on how you look at Pipe Trouble and the notion that games – even the tacky apps most are so quick to dismiss – can be tremendously significant, all this controversy is surrounding the game for either all the wrong or all the right reasons. Outrage over its depiction of pipeline explosions is rightly sensitive to those in western Canada for whom the Keystone XL and other such pipelines may be either a blessing or a bane. Questions swirl as to why a publicly funded Ontario broadcaster has published a game about hot topics in Western Canada, while the government of Alberta has made a fuss of it with Ontario, its source, remaining comparatively mum. Not surprisingly, Pop Sandbox Productions themselves, the game’s developers, have come under fire for using their prerogative as creators to donate a portion of the game’s proceeds to the David Suzuki Foundation, whose namesake these days suffers the public image of a hypocrite.
Pipe Trouble has inspired conversation and discussion about all of these issues, whether directly as a result of its content and agenda or indirectly as a result of its debts to taxpayer dollars and the citizens of Ontario who may now be questioning why their money has gone to develop a propaganda videogame. And be assured that Pipe Trouble is most definitely a propaganda game, even before its news media soundbites, which bookend its stages, betray its fairly neutral dynamics and gameplay with a distinct bias against energy conglomerates.
This is why I adore Pipe Trouble. It’s not just because it’s a brilliant game (which it is), nor because it speaks to my ethical/ideological stances (which is neither here nor there), but rather because it’s a truly important and significant game. Rather than wrapping its dynamics in commentary as an ironic coat of paint or critic-proof facade (see: Far Cry 3), the two elements support one another to such an extent that the commentary becomes essential to its dynamics and the dynamics amplify the effects of the commentary. Depending on which of the two you remove, you’re left with either a dreary Pipe Mania-esque puzzler or an ineffective grade school level debate. But combined, it becomes a highly successful and thought-provoking dynamic experiment, deftly demonstrating the persuasive powers of videogames.
– Play Pipe Trouble Demo
– CBC News Report on Pipe Trouble
– Sun Media News Report on Pipe Trouble
– National Post news report on Pipe Trouble