At one point, I found myself asking if animals have bones.
Sos Sosowski is a self-styled “mad scientist of video games”, so it is perhaps fitting that his latest game began, as so many scientific discoveries do, with a mistake. You may have seen the jiggling jelly-like naked men in the many gifs that have documented the development of Mosh Pit Simulator [official site], you may even have seen the glitching dinosaurs that appear to be in a constant state of mid-explosion, but behind all the madness there is a method. Last week, I met with Sosowski and he showed me the game behind the gifs.
In the world of Mosh Pit Simulator, people don't have any bones. That's why they flop about, wobbling and folding in on themselves. I'd expected to see a series of vignettes in which these boneless flesh-bags push and punch one another – the game's title comes from an original scene that had rubbery people dancing, colliding and crowding around one another – but instead I found a weird plot, a thoughtful approach to VR and a giant whale crashing into a city street.
The people are the stars though. They move erratically using some brilliantly awful application of physics that essentially causing them to be falling constantly, but repeatedly jerking back into an upright position with a randomised angle of ascent.
Whatever the code might be telling these things to do, the result has been described as both horrifying or hilarious. Looking at it close up, I feel it's more the latter than the former, which is in line with Sosowski's own feelings. A jaunty soundtrack makes all the difference, he tells me; layer some horror synths over the twitching expressionless nudes and they're disturbing, but give them a bouncy comedy soundtrack and they're having a ball, even when you're punching them into orbit or throwing them over a building.
But what about the animals and the important question as to whether they have bones? It's all about the plot, for this is indeed a game with a plot. It didn't start that way, being nothing more than an experiment with physics that was much more likely to be discarded or to become one of Sosowski's many shorts than to transform into a full-fledged game, more than a year in the making. That's what happened though. The initial gif had been viewed four million times within 24 hours of being posted to Twitter and maybe there was something more to these weird creatures than a quick creepy-laugh.
The plot came much later and it involves a mad scientist (what else?) who decides to release a toxin that will remove everybody's bones. People with bones are depicted as stiff things, sort of hopping through the world with a couple of frames of animation. They're not having a great time and I can definitely see why someone might want to make them a bit looser and less rigid. Even at a grungy concert, where you as one of the stiffs find yourself, there's no real fluidity to the dancing.
You might think bonelessness would be a blessing then, but when the toxin transforms everyone except your character, the mosh pit you happen to be in becomes very dangerous. These people aren't just boneless, they're also brainless, and all they want to do is flail, punch and fight.
They're brainless because the initial attempt to create boneless people was thwarted by an autocorrect, Sosowski explains. It's precisely the kind of explanation I'd come to expect at that point. Earlier, he'd casually mentioned that “when you go to space, there are dinosaurs there, in space”. I laughed and said, “of course.” Mildly objecting to my acceptance of the idea as the kind of lolrandom weirdness for the sake of weirdness that it'd be easy to see the game as, he explained: “Dinosaurs never went extinct, they became so advanced that they left the planet and went to live in space.”
I saw the proof of the space dinosaurs in the video playing on Sosowski's laptop, which has more stickers adorning it than my last Panini World Cup Album did. To be precise, I should say which of the videos had the dinosaur in it because at one point there were three videos in progress. A trailer playing in fullscreen had been paused while our attention shifted to a different video in a smaller window superimposed on top of the first. Meanwhile, a third video was playing on a tablet that Sosowski had just yanked out of his bag.
When something catches his attention in one video, he's often reminded of a scene in another and so he jumps between them. It's as if he's editing in real-time and it's not hard to imagine every suggestion he hears and every idea that comes into his mind finding its way into the game. It's surprisingly controlled though, with a main setting (an open world city) that has been built to very strict parameters. It's not so big as to be a technical hindrance given that the game will be running in VR and has lots of moving/breakable objects, and plenty of variety has been packed into its few blocks. The roads are wider than you'd expect due to field of view concerns, again related to VR, and so that there's more space to cause chaos.
The more time I spend talking to Sosowski, the more I realise that the game he has jokingly described as “The Worst Game Ever” is, in fact, very carefully constructed. One video shows a man with an enormous torso and big beefy arms dragging his tiny lower half through the streets, and then Kong-like up a building where he raises a finger to the camera. It's one of the most gloriously stupid things I've ever seen in a game, but it's actually a depiction of one of the game's several movement options. The character is half-big and half-small because he eats half of what Sosowski calls “a Mario mushroom”, but he's really half-big and half-small because that allows arm and head tracking to work while the untrackable legs are effectively taken out of consideration.
You can also use the now-standard teleportation method of first-person movement, throwing a target and warping to the place it lands. You can also drive a car, as can the erratic AI characters. You can break almost everything in the world and craft new items by mashing two objects together. Pick up a person and attach them to a rocket and watch as the physics engine does the rest, sending them spiralling into the air or trailing along the ground.
Theoretically, you could, I think, attach an animal to a person. There is a zoo in the city and though the version I was shown was unpopulated, it'll have elephants at the very least. I asked if there would be giraffes and Sosowski was immediately editing in real-time again: “Yes. There should be. I'll make a note of that.”
But I'm imagining a giraffe, of course, because I'm imagining how a giraffe would look if it were boneless just as these people are boneless. With the head dangling at the end of that mighty neck like a wrecking ball on a rope, we'd be back to nightmare country.
So, do animals have bones or did the toxin only work on people?
“Oh no, they do not have bones. Nothing has bones. Except you.”
Mosh Pit Simulator has been a QWOP-like racing game, a two-player beat 'em up and a surreal comedy spectator sport. When it arrives in Early Access, it'll be one of the silliest but also one of the smartest VR games out there. That's because Sosowski didn't set out to make a VR game because that seemed like the right thing to do for reasons of commerce or curiosity. He made a VR game because that's where his creative impulses led him; Mosh Pit Simulator is about many things, but fundamental to its appeal is the initial push that sets all the other events into motion. You need to be able to touch these creatures if you're going to have any chance of understanding them.
"In VR," he told me when explaining the benefits of using the tech, "you can touch their butts."