Multibowl is a piece of interactive art that challenges two players to explore and compete against each other across a vast trove of scenes and moments from classics (and not-so-classic) video games. Premiered at Portland's XOXO Festival in 2016, it makes its Australian debut at ACMI as part of White Night.
Built by Bennett Foddy and AP Thompson, Multibowl makes use of MAME, a long running and recently open sourced, emulation project that enables modern computers to emulate a vast number of the computer chipsets that powered the arcade, console, and computer games of the last 40 years. MAME started out 20 years ago in February 1997, and its growth has paralleled similar growth in the power of personal computing. MAME now accurately emulates hundreds of different systems, from fully fledged home computers and consoles through to single-game arcade chips. These emulated systems, in turn, provide access to tens of thousands of individual games.
What Multibowl attempts to do is to interrogate this vast archive of "all the videogames" and asks, "how do we make sense of an infinite archive" and "what if you could competitively play moments of many different games?" And if you could do that, how might you make it "fair" so that familiarity with particular games wouldn't be a determining factor in player success?
Seb Chan, ACMI's Chief Experience Officer and classic videogame enthusiast, spoke to one of Multibowl's creators, Bennett Foddy, to find some answers to these enticing questions. Bennett has made a lot of indie games including rag doll athletics game QWOP, and contributed to party game SportsFriends. Currently, he teaches game design at NYU's GameCenter.
Seb Chan: It feels, to me, that both emulation and indie game development have exploded in public awareness in recent years. Emulation more recently with the open licensing of MAME (finally) and also the visibility and access that the Internet Archive's work and JSMESS has brought. In the context of this, where does Multibowl fit?
Benett Foddy: I think that the average person who likes games doesn’t know what an emulator is. By now they might have bought an emulated game on WiiWare or PSN but they don’t get that this is a ‘virtual computer’. And I wish more people were using the JSMESS stuff on the Internet Archive, which is so amazing and so crucial for the survival of the medium’s history. For sure, part of the point of Multibowl is to raise awareness of lesser-known work, maybe even to remind players and designers of how diverse and broad the medium can be! Because of the need for games to be ‘functional’ in some way, they tend to hew quite quickly toward orthodoxy and rigid genre constraints … but along the way, a staggering number of different types of game has been invented. It’s hard to get your head around that vastness, especially in a medium that has to be played to be understood, and I think as a result the cultural history of games gets erased much more than, say, film. Maybe Multibowl is a way that a person could fit a sizeable chunk of that history in their head.
SC: Multibowl's multi-player dynamics are a lot of fun. How did this evolve as an idea? How did you choose which games to include - which ones did you start with?
BF: I think my original idea was to do something much more Warioware-esque, with each game only being on screen for 5 seconds, with no instructions. I naturally tend toward unfriendly experiences. AP Thomson’s influence on the project at first was to make it more of an actual game that you could hope to play skilfully. So a lot of the design choices flow from that basic design goal.
Regarding the game choices, at the outset, I wanted to curate a list of moments of gameplay that would be meaningful if played for just a short period of time. Sometimes it’s obvious – you can take a moment from a fighting game where both players are low on health, or play a sports game from the start until the first point is scored. So that’s where I started. Over time, I figured out that you could make exciting moments in games that are not otherwise interesting for a competitive duel. For example, in Dodonpachi (a bullet hell game) we take away the player’s guns and challenge them to stay alive in a huge hail of bullets.
For games that were designed as cooperative experiences, I eventually gravitated toward the structure ‘score more points but do not die’, which forces the players to calibrate how much risk they take relative to the other player.
SC: Tell us a bit about how it works under the hood? How does Multibowl operate as a "layer" on top of the emulation, and on top of the games themselves?
BF: The core content of Multibowl is a set of 300 games, with one or more save states for each game. Once a state loads, you play the games until some byte of memory changes from some number to another number, as specified by me, and that counts as winning a point. AP created a system that let me easily stow these states and memory addresses into a data file, and which would allow the system to jump from one emulated system to another. Understandably, MAME really doesn’t want to be made to do that! I think basically every other user of MAME would be happy to load up one emulated machine and play one game, and that’s what it’s optimised for. So it takes a bit of technical wrangling to make it work properly.
SC: Multibowl premiered at XOXO. What was the reaction? What was special about XOXO in terms of getting it in front of 'your people'?
BF: I feel like, every year XOXO ran there was someone there who was playing in ‘grey copyright’ areas, and of course the organiser Andy Baio was at the center of the fair use debate over his pixellated cover of ‘Kind of Blue’. Portland is also a town that is full of retro gamers (evidenced by the excellent scene at the amazing Ground Kontrol arcade) and the people at the festival were enthusiastic and knowledgeable. There was a line to play the game all night long, so it was a great place to debut the game.
SC: Interactive art, appropriation art, pastiche, collage, mashup – Multibowl could be all of these things. How do you conceive of where it fits?
BF: I suppose in a medium of perfect, infinite reproducibility, there might not be that much of a line between mixtapes, mashups, collage and pastiche. In any case, it's not really an area that has been explored all that much in games, mostly for technical reasons. WarioWare, Rhythm Tengoku and Ganbare Ginkun made large games out of a series of very small ones, and of course the Aussie classic ROM CHECK FAIL makes a pastiche of classic game art and mechanics, but I don’t think the actual bits of actual games have ever been used as the fabric of a larger game before.
SC: I love that you mention Ganbare Ginkun. I guess its the ur-mini-game game. As a sidenote, I'm curious as to why these sorts of titles all seem to be Japanese and not so well known, other than WarioWare, outside of Japan?
BF: That’s a great question! There are lots of them in Japan - other notable ones would be the Bishi Bashi Champ series, the Wagyan Paradise games and of course Mario Party.
There was a period of time when compilation-games were popular in the anglophone world, notably with Cinemaware’s narrative classics and Epyx’s sports games. But it petered out as a style in the early 1990s as production values started to go up with the advent of 3D and FMV. I think one important thing about Japan is that the huge popularity of handheld consoles and arcade games kept low-fi 2D gaming alive, and maybe that’s the right venue for compilations of games.
SC: In a museum of games (as well as film and TV), we're always confronted by the very real challenge of "curating" a broad swathe of games for visitors and historians to play. I like how you've pointed out that perhaps Multibowl is a way for people to "get their head around the vastness' of the game world – whilst still giving players/historians a moment of 'playability' and thus a practical understanding of why a certain game is interesting. It must have been a huge amount of work to not only select the games and platforms, but then also create the save states at the right moments for each game. Tell me more – I can see so many potential curatorial uses of MultiBowl in terms of genre or game mechanic-specific selections...
BF: Multibowl is not a very precise historical curation like you might make for a museum exhibition, where you can only show a couple of dozen things at most. It’s a huge driftnet of games. There is no quality or historical significance standard, and no attempt to balance out the games in terms of nationality or gender. The only curatorial instinct that it follows is to find the most diverse set of game ideas. With each piece distilled down to a randomly-selected 30-second slice, there’s room for an infinite number of them.
In fact, contrary to a museum curation, the point of Multibowl is to have too many games for a single player to see. It’s best when it feels too big to grasp. I think, now that there are 300 games in there, it’s starting to feel that way.
SC: Have you hit limitations with Multibowl in terms of the underlying performance of MAME/MESS? Or in the chipsets it emulates? Are there certain titles you'd wished you'd been able to include?
BF: The biggest one that I missed was the Amiga, a notoriously difficult-to-emulate multi-chip architecture. Of course as an Australian growing up in the 80s and 90s I spent thousands of hours playing Amiga games, and there are a lot of unique two-player gems, from famous sports games like Speedball 2 to lesser-known public domain games like Biplane Duel (aka Bip). Other than that, there are great titles for the early 3D consoles that are just too slow in MAME, which takes a very precise approach to emulation compared to other "high level" emulators. Maybe I’ll revisit the curation in 5 years, once computers have sped up a bunch.
SC: Oh I'd forgotten you were Australian! I need to then ask the obvious question about favourite Australian games...
BF: The two I included in Multibowl are Beam’s Aussie Rules Footy and Way of the Exploding Fist. But, as for my favourite, it would definitely be something newer. Maybe Captain Forever, or Push Me Pull You. It seems as though Australian indie developers have been undergoing an amazing renaissance since I left, not just in Melbourne but also in Brisbane.