The running joke was crawling towards the finishing line. It knew it could make it. Somehow, it had to make it. It inched up to the RPS-approved Fairtrade Advent Calendar, and tore open the door to reveal...
The inevitable punchline. OM NOM NOM NOM!
But there's another running joke here too. Why, isn't it our old friend PEGGLE!
Actually, it isn't a friend to all of us. Walker hates Peggle.
I don’t hate Peggle! I really don’t. I just don’t think it’s a 9/10 game. Why? Because it’s so dependent on sheer luck, and I prefer skill over luck.
And I know it’s not all luck. I really do. I’ve completed the game multiple times, and the dozens of extra levels, and Extreme, and I’ve enjoyed every moment of them. It makes lovely noises, it’s so cheerful and fun, and it’s incredibly satisfying when the ball hits the peg you so desperately hope it will. I get it all. (With one exception, and we’ll get to that).
It’s just, while it’s great when you luck out and hit that final peg, it was still luck. And that’s fun. But it’s not enough for me to fall in love with the game, marry it, have seventeen children, and name them all Peggle.
So rather than write why the game is so good, since it clearly is, I’ll obey my role and dig the hole deeper for myself by pointing out the reason Kieron hates me so, so much:
I cannot stand when it plays Ode To Joy.
First time, that was quite fun. Second time, still quite fun. Thirty-ninth time? Really, really annoying. The level’s over, I’ve won it – what I want now is to play the next level. Anything, in any game ever, that I can’t skip between levels drives me to mad distraction. If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it. I know it. I don’t need to sit through the sequence every single stinking time, because what I want to be doing is playing more Peggle, not sitting uselessly at my computer waiting for the interval to finish. And while you can speed much of it up with a timely click, you can’t make the fireworks just go away, and that’s what I want to do. And that, along with my turning the music off almost immediately, is apparently why I’m evil. So I’ll be evil.
I feel vaguely guilty whenever we talk about Peggle here (as we so often do). I worry we’re being wilfully kitsch, clinging cynically onto something that’s absolutely the polar opposite of all the games with guns we inevitably end up talking about. It’s dangerously close to grown men collecting Hello Kitty memorabilia because they think it makes them look interesting and alternative and sensitive.
Then I actually play some more Peggle, and I feel much better about it, realise we’re not faking anything. This isn’t just any old casual game we’ve plucked from the primary-coloured legions to pretend we’re more than triggerhappy men-children. This is Peggle.
It’s the videogaminess of if that really makes it what it is. A straight pachinko clone wouldn’t have wormed its way into PC gaming’s consciousness as this as. It bends the laws of logic and physics in minor ways only a videogame can do – psychic balls, flaming balls, impeccably timed slow-motion effects... It knows that it’s based around a very, very silly idea – shooting balls at pegs – so it decides to make it even sillier, even to the point of satire. The sort of special abilities we’d usually find in horribly overwritten, stony faced action games are applied to what’s basically upside-down Breakout, and Peggle laughs at the ridiculousness of it all right along with us.
Similarly, the game responds to the absolute mundanity of your accomplishments – i.e. hitting all the orange pegs, or hitting every peg – as though you’ve just singlehandedly won the World Cup. There’s a drumroll as you near that last peg; a heartfelt sight from an unseen crowd if you miss; and a rapturous chorus of angel song if you make it. Now that’s the mark of a impeccable videogame – one that can make you feel as though sitting still and twitching your mouse makes you some sort of god amongst men.
That’s why Peggle is so moreish – not because of some secret electronic heroin formula embedded in its code, or chasing ever-higher places in the score table, or even wanting to see the next level. It’s simply because it makes you feel so bloody great about yourself whenever you clear a screen.
I’m finding Christmas and its associated responsibilities remarkably hateful this year. But I have a plan. As soon as I awake on Christmas Dday, before I let my mind realise I’m stuck for a week in my parents’ spare room, with my girlfriend and (possibly more importantly) my PC on the other side of the country, I’m going to reach for my iPod and play some Peggle. I think I’ll be okay. I’ll probably get absolutely bladdered on sherry too. That’ll help.
Oh, and a final, terrible truth: I've ripped Peggle's version of the Ode to Joy to my phone, and set it as my ringtone. God help me.
Peggle's success primarily comes from two aspects of its design, and how they intermix. Neither of which seem to work on Walker the way they seem to for the rest of us, which does make me understand his relative antipathy towards the game which begat more RPS running jokes this side of a certain Companion Cube.
Firstly, it manages to judge the exact ratio between skill/non-skill and then uses it as a device to ratchet up tension. In most levels of Peggle, you make that single, meaningful decision - that is, where to shoot the bloody thing. Then you sit and watch and hope and pray and growl and shout at the screen. In the same way as a you sit and watch a deck, hoping that the odds turn right and your card turns up - even though you know the chances are so small - you watch that ball in Peggle, and the pegs and the dance between them. The game expertly plays up to this, the ever-ascending scale as you take peg after peg down, not forgetting the perfect slo-mo and zoom for that final shot.
Secondly, it delivers a pay off of the tension. Obviously, it's the EXTREME FEVER!!!! and fireworks and Ode to Joy and air-punching. The fact you made so few decisions, and have spent so much time just sitting there and staring... you need that moment, that glorious release. It needs to be big, and PopCap make it as big they can. Unlike Walker, I can't imagine wanting to move onto the next puzzle immediately, without leaning back and grinning and wiping my brow. The tension stretching out forever, without moment of jubilation would make it more like a horror game than the puzzle creature it is.
That said, it's in the Survival Horror where we find the closest comparison to the Tension/Release structure, except with the emotional axis inversed. In - say - System Shock 2, it's fear of what will inevitably happen interspersed with brief moments of that inevitable happening. In Peggle, it's about anticipation interspersed with brief moments of intense, rhapsodic joy.
Everything about the game feeds into one of the other of the two poles. And it's brilliantly concieved, perfectly executed and - as such - quietly immortal.
We didn't used to call these Casual games. When I was an Amiga kid, we just called them Puzzle games, because games were just a fantastic continuum of pleasures and I was capable of a love which didn't differentiate between Bob's Bad Day and the Bard's Tale, and aware that as a gamer your life is worse without both. Perhaps what most earns Peggle a place in my heart that, due to its mass acceptance and love, it kind of gives me hope that in the future of PC Gaming there's a chance that those boundaries between Core and Casual will dissolve a little.
Which is kind of neatly encapsulated Dartt's image here...
I like that future.
Oh yeah, one for the road:
PS. I've discovered the best way to play. Music and Fever turned off, hold the right mouse button as soon as the levels over to skip things (much more quickly than I remembered), and put on some episodes of The Burkiss Way (or whichever 1970s Radio 4 comedy you prefer) while you're playing. Peggle perfection!