Kettle

Welcome back to Fringe Busters! First a bit of housekeeping: For 2011 we’re going to do a few format changes. I’m refocusing the articles to be about discussion instead of review. The point of FB has always been to get people to not only play a game, but think about it as well. So instead of merely evangelizing about the game, I’m going to try and provoke some discussion about it instead.

Which brings our first game for the year into focus: Kettle. Kettle is a puzzle game where you move police officers around the outside of a group of protesters in order to fit them inside a “secure zone.” In addition to some fun puzzling based around the premise, a crudely drawn policeman shows up in between puzzles to berate you while a banal 8-bit loop of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” plays in the background.

Which is what really strikes me about this entire exercise, the banality of it all. The subject matter is a highly charged group of protesters conflicting with police, but the game depicts everyone as crudely drawn sprites doing exactly as they’re told, with no unpredictable movements. Even the policeman berating you in the cutscenes delivers threatening lines such as “Gonna lock you up sonny!” with the energy and speed of a NyQuil-dosed sloth.

Talking Points: What is the sloth-like pace of the gameplay trying to say? If it’s boring, what does it mean that this game is a model of a boring protest? Does the slower pace make the game more contemplative? Do the crude graphics help, or are they just convenient?

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Comments

I dig this new stance.

I think the part most confusing to me is the name. It makes me think of hot, steamy ... pressure. There's no pressure here, though. Not even a whistle, strangely enough.

I half expected a sort of Minotaur China Shop thing here, where it would switch from trying to contain protesters to trying to help protesters escape. No such luck.

It's a riddle wrapped in an enigma.

The game, I believe, was made as a response to the outrage over the "kettling" techniques recently used on student protesters in London (I think the song in there is God Save The Queen, which My Country... borrows the tune from.)

The police surrounded and contained students (and some random passers by) in Trafalgar Square and kept them there for 9 hours - I hadn't thought of it before, but I think in this light the boredom that Pyroman mentions seems like it is definitely an intentional statement.

Switchbreak wrote:

The game, I believe, was made as a response to the outrage over the "kettling" techniques recently used on student protesters in London (I think the song in there is God Save The Queen, which My Country... borrows the tune from.)

The police surrounded and contained students (and some random passers by) in Trafalgar Square and kept them there for 9 hours - I hadn't thought of it before, but I think in this light the boredom that Pyroman mentions seems like it is definitely an intentional statement.

God Save The Queen definitely makes more sense given the British policeman hats they seem to be wearing.

In that light, the banality and boredom makes more sense as well. Besides the obvious quote about the "banality of evil" the game is really talking about the police menacing people by literally boring them. About how threatening that would feel if the police just sat there and stared at you for 9 hours.

Hmmm, interesting. Two thoughts come to mind:

1) the pacification of protesters - possibly a statement that protesters of today aren't as bold as protesters of yesterday, and that they should grow a pair and revolt a little more vigorously.

2) reminds me of the events of the UCLA basketball championship in the 1994-95 season. I was a graduating senior and instead of watching the game I went to the beach with friends. When we got back, we couldn't believe how crazy Westwood went - people literally were overturning cars and demolishing them. Anyways, afterwards there were many parties throughout the weekend and one friend of mine complained about getting shot with rubber bullets by the cops. "Why did they do that?" I asked. "Because I threw a beer bottle at them," he replied. "Why did you do that?" I asked. "Because they showed up," he replied. Made me wonder if protests are generally peaceful until law enforcement shows up.

PyromanFO wrote:
Switchbreak wrote:

The game, I believe, was made as a response to the outrage over the "kettling" techniques recently used on student protesters in London (I think the song in there is God Save The Queen, which My Country... borrows the tune from.)

The police surrounded and contained students (and some random passers by) in Trafalgar Square and kept them there for 9 hours - I hadn't thought of it before, but I think in this light the boredom that Pyroman mentions seems like it is definitely an intentional statement.

God Save The Queen definitely makes more sense given the British policeman hats they seem to be wearing.

Man, I was trying to figure out the connection between My Country ‘Tis of Thee and the British police.

And I did NOT shat myself.

Switchbreak has the right of it - this is a "statement game" and, in my opinion, an interesting one. I didn't really understand the reasoning for the name either, but the concept became increasingly clear as I kept playing, so much so that it inspired me to go dig into Wikipedia to actually learn how exactly "kettling" played into this game. That's the ideal conclusion and experience for a game like this -- showing the player something meaningful in real life -- and there are a lot of "persuasive" games that never quite get there for me.

One thing that I appreciate from Kettle is that there's an actual game in there. The design not only ties neatly into the concept, but it actually stands up as a spatial reasoning puzzle. In fact, some of the later puzzles, where you have to fit the crowd into a 6x6 grid, are legitimately hard, brain-crunching stuff.

The presentation is a little less successful, but still engaging at moments. Leaving out all sound other than an off-kilter version of "God Save The Queen", which is just discordant enough to let you know that something is clearly wrong here, is perfect. The graphics, however, are barely functional -- they give you just enough detail to work out that you're actually trapping innocent bystanders and little girls in the grid, and little more than that. I actually feel like they leave a lot of money on the table, so to speak, by keeping things crude and abstract; this is something that actually happens in real life and bringing some additional fidelity to the presentation -- animating the people as they shuffle around, having them squirm a little bit if you sit on a puzzle for too long, differentiating between protester and innocent bystander -- might help reinforce that.

The big failure, though, is the policeman's messages between levels. The game is obviously trying to take a swing at black comedy, but almost all of these messages just end up sounding stupid, from awful non-sequiturs ("Gonna lock you up sonny!") to poorly-presented netspeak ("Haha you shat yourself") to ham-fisted vitriol ("I'm upholding fundamental human rights"). Only at the end of the game, where the policeman literally runs out of lines to say and just stares at you endlessly, with that warbly "God Save The Queen" blaring in the speakers behind him, does the "script" finally convey something meaningful to the player.

I understand how this is game is an abstraction of kettling, but I don't believe that it's an effective critique of the practice. The primary objections to kettling are the violent methods necessary to effectively corral a large group of people (i.e., forceful use of batons); the length of time that protestors are denied access to food, water, and toilets; and how easily observers and bystanders can be caught in the net. The game addresses the last of these concerns by including people who clearly aren't protestors in the mix of puzzle pieces, but the other two are largely ignored. Based on the gameplay portion of this, I'd almost believe that kettling was an effective and humane method of crowd control.

The graphics and mechanics don't convey the violence of the containment. Tightening the cordon seems like a minor thing with everyone shuffling about in an polite, orderly manner. And once everyone is contained, there's no change in their behavior or appearance. The round is over, and everyone is content rather than bottled up, thirsty, and soiling themselves. I suppose this could work as a critique of the protestors' unwillingness to fight the police, but we're never given any idea that this is something worth fighting against. The cops don't seem all that bad, really.

Well, except for Cutscene Cop. The problem with Cutscene Cop is two-fold: one, he doesn't look menacing—I was reminded more of Pom-Pom from Homestar Runner than anything else; two, it's not immediately clear who he is addressing. The game muddles its perspectives: during gameplay, you're asked to take on the role of a cop, but in the cutscenes you're in the role of the protestors. At first, I thought Cutscene Cop was addressing me, the controller of the police, and I couldn't understand why he was threatening me when I had successfully completed the task at hand. A more effective tactic would have been to show the cops intimidating the protestors from the cops' perspective. The shift from "you shat yourself" to "she shat herself" would go a long way toward making the player question the validity of his actions and the practice of kettling as a whole.

I'm not sure that Kettle is really framed as a critique, though. (Of course, my complete ignorance of the concept before playing the game may be skewing my view of it.) The absurdity of the statements between puzzles, as well as the crude dehumanization that comes across in the graphics, seems to present the experience as a demonstration through a black comedy lens. Kettling is a terrible, ridiculous thing, so the creator has presented it with an equally ridiculous presentation.

I do agree, though, that the game could work much better as demonstration and critique with clearer tone and more detail as to what is actually happening. Retroactively connecting the violence and repercussions of the kettling to your actions in the game can potentially be informative -- it was for me -- but I don't think it could even come close to the same impact as experiencing it first-hand as you play the game.

I think that sums it up well, Ozy. And I think Adam's point about the muddled perspective is probably the biggest step that could be taken to improve the game.

I sort of wonder what to do with the muddled perspectives as it stands, though. Are we being exposed to multiple perspectives? We assume that a game like this would be attempting to deplore kettling, but this game actually seems to make it feel more like the tidy separation that proponents want to think it is. Is the game, intentionally or not, making the case that kettling can work well if employed carefully and methodically, rather than just uniformly cinching in on an area?

That is the case the game mechanics make, but the between-round commentary suggests a more negative view of kettling.

Good points. I think, though, that there are three ways in which the abstract and tidy nature of the game serves the message. Firstly, these sorts of police responses are generally portrayed as a necessary evil, a use of force to protect law-abiding citizens from danger. By going out of their way to make the protest boring and non-violent, the game recontextualizes the response away from a clash of force against force and instead shows it as a systematic suppression tactic. Secondly, I think the game wants you to consciously notice the dehumanizing effect of thinking of the people involved as puzzle pieces. Thirdly, there is the idea of Brechtian alienation, where didactic works intentionally put barriers in the way of our natural response to connect with them emotionally in order to have a larger conscious impact.

Switchbreak wrote:

Brechtian alienation

wordsmythe wrote:

I dig this new stance.

Me too.

Switchbreak wrote:

Secondly, I think the game wants you to consciously notice the dehumanizing effect of thinking of the people involved as puzzle pieces.

This was the main point I took away from the game. Not only do I look at the people as puzzle pieces, but I can easily manipulate them into a box with my police forces. What I don't see is the brutality involved in moving such a large group of people around by force. The distance between me and the protesters is enough for me to do my job without worrying about them as individuals, or the harm I may cause them.