When I was in college, my friends and I formed a punk band. The entire process was ridiculously easy—I think we officially formed on Twitter. We sounded vaguely like Minor Threat and for the entirety of our existence pretty much only performed drunk. As the lead singer I made the executive decision that we would be called The Potheads. I have never been anything more than an entry-level ironist.
More and more there’s this overwhelming feeling that gaming is entering its “punk era.” These days, all you need to make a perfectly passable game is a bit of coding knowledge and some art know-how, and then poof. Game. That’s pretty punk, right? And then of course, there are actual “punk games,” the ones by designers like Cactus and Messhof that get “shown” in art galleries and have these off-kilter, atonal soundtracks and aren’t necessarily “fun” in the conventional “Hey look guys Mario’s jumping on a Koopa this is great!” sense of the term. I’ve done “punk” before, so I figured if you gave me a few hours and a basic computer program that cut out all of the coding, I could come up with the best, most punk videogame ever. It would be like GG Allin or something.
My original conception was this: You know those TVs from the late ’90s that had the screensavers with a logo that would bounce from side to side on the screen? Well, in my game you were going to do that, and you’d get points for making the horse hit the corners in the order that I told you to, using the arrow keys and math.
With that in mind, I present to you my debut game, Horse in the Paint.
The game is, obviously, basically 100-percent different from how I’d hoped it would turn out. I created it using a program called GameSalad, which has sort of the same basic layout as Photoshop: there are frames, objects, and layers, and you manipulate those parameters to make your game. The problem, unfortunately, is that I have no idea how Photoshop works, and therefore was completely lost in GameSalad, which adapts a lot of Photoshoppy ideas into its schema of interactive motion. So in cutting out the programming language that serves as a hefty barrier to entry into game making, GameSalad has just introduced a slightly less-imposing barrier to entry. Three chords, a black leather jacket, and your stoned neighbor behind a drumkit, this is not.
If there’s any lesson I took away from making a terrible, dumb game that literally has no point, it’s that while games might be able to co-opt the attitudes and imagery of punk, it’s still damn hard to co-opt the practices. When my band wrote songs, our guitarists would play literally the first thing that came to their heads, our drummer and bassist would pound/thump the same basic rhythm over and over again, and I would just scream random stuff about the government. Somehow, it worked every time. Not so much with GameSalad. My original goal was for the horse to bounce off the walls of the screen, but it turns out that those walls don't exist and I was supposed to make my own. In punk, the walls are your own limitations. In GameSalad, the wall is just another variable that I can't figure out.
While games might be able to co-opt the attitudes and imagery of punk, it’s still damn hard to co-opt the practices.
If you play the game through, here’s what you get: First, you have to exit out of a screen that says, “false.” Then, you have a picture of a horse (nicked from the avatar of the @horse_ebooks Twitter account, naturally) that quickly drifts to the bottom of the screen. There are two options for interacting with your horse. You can press the “Z” key to make it disappear, or you can do nothing, and it will fall off the bottom of the screen. Either way, you lose.
But, as I played Horse in the Paint on an infinite loop while listening to “Hard in the Paint” by Waka Flocka Flame, watching the little horse disappear into the abyss, or maybe just disappear, I realized: Maybe the point of this is that it has no point. Maybe it’s like John Cage’s 4’33”, where the audience has to rethink what the composition is really about. Had I made an un-game? I asked Ryan Kuo, Kill Screen’s resident disgruntled critic and person brilliant enough to help me justify Horse in the Paint, to provide a little positive spin via critical analysis. Take it away, Ryan.
Horse in the Paint is a broken game, but it is vividly broken. By limiting interactivity to a single keystroke, Millard foregrounds the methodology of videogame rhetoric, which is the pretension that participating in a system with instinctive and thoughtless button presses may generate a meaning about our place in that system that we should somehow both know and care about. But interactivity in this game begins outside the system, at the dialog box (if not the decision to read this article and bother playing the game, itself an act of participation—a sociopolitical identification with those communities engaged in the act of exploring the limits of taking games seriously). The player’s first instinct is to clear the dialog box, which reads “false,” a frankly nihilistic worldview Millard nurtured as the frontman of a minor but formative punk rock band. Though it takes the outward appearance of a glitch, this box in most play sessions constitutes the beginning and end of interaction with Horse in the Paint. What are videogames, the box asks, but lies dressed as functions? As quickly as it appears, the iconic horse vanishes into the digital ether, and we are left with Waka Flocka Flame’s seething anger and a gaping black hole where the future of art used to be.
Is this a joke? And yet, are these questions not worth taking seriously? Press Z and we send the horse into oblivion ourselves, a fraction of a second faster than the game dictates, and yet an eternity of meaning away. For it’s through our physical engagement with this process that we become known entities in this blank space, granting ourselves the agency to accelerate the game’s descent into nothing. And yet the results are the same, the nothingness still empty, the anger still seething, the instruction revealing itself as destruction and deconstruction. The letter Z, after all, originates in ancient weaponry. I could go on.
There you have it. I didn’t make a game without a point, I made a game that “foregrounds the methodology of videogame rhetoric.” A deconstruction of our own desires for coherence and reward. A challenge to the conventions of gaming. The conventions of convention. Maybe, in trying and failing to make a punk game, I’ve made something that is punk in spite of everything—especially itself.