Collage, gamefeel, history, form
April 28 2024

Sometimes myself and Mut and Jonny, and occasionally other people, use the word 'plunderludics' (which Mut made up in 2021, after 'plunderphonics') to refer to this stuff. 'Software collage' is a less catchy phrase which I use in my head sometimes that feels lighter and gets closer to the bits that interest me at the moment. Either way I don't want to care about the word very much and feel less interested in genre-defining than in noting a couple of things that interest me about the specific approach.

What the word refers to is 'games made out of other games', or as far as I'm mostly concerned, videogames made out of other videogames. I find it easiest to explain this to other people in terms of analogous techniques in other media - sampling/remix/plunderphonics, collage/assemblage, film/video mashups, and so on. It seems like such techniques are extremely common in music (since the 80s), more or less mainstream in visual/plastic arts (since the early 20th century), sort of common in film/video*, fringe but not rare in prose/poetry, and relatively marginal in videogames. Videogames that spoof or reference other games seem pretty common, videogames that appropriate /assets/ from other games are well-represented (Oikospiel, Terminal 64, Titanic II, Jazztronauts, 99 Exercises in Play, others in the 'Plundercore' collection), and games that are actually built out of other games (as software) are kind of rare but flourish in certain spheres (e.g. Multibowl, Purgateus, the Bizhawk Ring Shuffler, and the vast world of rom hacks and mods (e.g. Myfanwy Ashmore or Cory Arcangel, JODI, randomizers, Kaizo Mario, etc), more in the Metagaming book). Plunderludics is about that last category, where the software itself is being appropriated, either through emulation or modifying the original source. The kind of plunderludics that me and Mut and Jonny have been doing is in some ways closest in spirit to Multibowl and the Ring Shuffler, in that we use emulation and I think are loosely oriented more towards reusing/recontextualizing/recombining bits of existing games than traditional modding (in the sense of modifying gameplay or adding content).

I think my attraction to this stuff partly comes from an envy towards those other media (a maybe childish and probably futile attempt at asking 'what if games could be like that too' which I sometimes gravitate towards for better or worse), and more specifically a vague but long-standing interest in collage gamedev which started around the time I played Marek Kapolka's 100 Free Beetles (which itself is based on two other collage-like games), and read the short essay beneath it about Marek's approach to collaging free Unity assets. Oikospiel, Terminal 64 and Titanic II are the other landmarks in the genre for me. So something that interests me with plunderludics is the possibility of doing something like what these games do, but with videogames themselves, rather than videogame assets, as material. From another direction, policefala and idkllr posts on twitter are frequently motivating in the 'why aren't games like this' way.

What I want to do here is just note a couple of things about how collage works, in general. These are probably banal observations to make but my hope is that just translating these observations to the videogame format might already be a little bit worthwhile.**


Doing collage (let's say, cutting two different things out of a magazine and sticking them on the same page) seems to have two basic effects. The first is placing two things in relation to each other, which might have some kind of direct semantic implication (you make the cowboy's gun point at the porn star, or whatever), but in the general case just means juxtaposing formal or higher-order qualities of whatever kind (color, shape, size, style, gesture, history, culture, etc etc). The second is that doing so invariably draws attention to those qualities in themselves, as opposed to their function in their original context. You cut a square out of the cowboy's cheek and you get a brown mottled texture that you can go use somewhere else.

What I like about doing the analogous thing with videogames is that it means confronting those qualities that make up a videogame, which includes in my mind everything that makes up an image (color, shape, texture, etc etc), and everything that makes up a video (motion, speed, sound, etc etc), but also interactive stuff like (at a large scale) dynamics of a complex interactive system, or (at a small scale) specific interactive texture (aka gamefeel - like response time of a button in a menu, weight of throwing a punch, etc etc). In general this feels to me like one way of getting at the 'materiality'/'sensuousness' of games that thecatamites talks about here, not necessarily sacrificing the ludic or mechanical dimension but relegating it to an equal position alongside everything else in a flat ontology of form. Trying to decide if Mario's butt stomp gamefeel goes nicely with the texture on the trees in Silent Hill is a way of giving those two things a respect they might otherwise be left without. More specifically, I guess my own bias tends towards the small-scale, and if plunderludics can be a way of focusing in on that level (and one that doesn't even require investing any effort into programming gamefeel response curves etc!) then that's enough in my mind to make it worth looking into.

mario mario's bro skater 2, Mut

One other fun thing about cutting pictures out of a magazine is that it means not just looking at but directly interacting (via your scissors/knife) with certain formal dimensions of the image, e.g. the shape of a certain object, its size, its occluding or being occluded by other objects on the page, its boundary with the edges of the frame, whatever else. To cut a sample from an image might mean cutting out a simple square that cuts across lines of content, or it might mean cutting around the boundaries of a distinct object, or along lines of color/texture/pattern, etc. With videogames, the process of finding a usable sample means having to consider the gameplay state and the possibility space of responses to player input, from small-scale gamefeel up to character movement, camera movement, level geometry, gameplay logic, etc - in addition to screen-space shape and color and texture and occlusion and everything else already present in a still image. Isolating or 'cutting out' a sample might be done through screen-space cropping, chroma-key filtering, timed cuts, selectively disabling inputs, monitoring particular bits of game state (by reading emulated RAM), actively modifying game state, or some combination of all those. The feeling you get is of tracing the outline of some sub-region of the videogame object through these various dimensions, finding the seams and articulation points where it's most convenient to make a cut.****

So what's nice about this process is more or less being forced to deal with the games in question in their formal fullness, not in the sense of old-school rules-and-gameplay 'games formalism' (maybe a strawman, whatever) but a more holistic one like David Kanaga used to advocate for, and one that lines up with the kind of 'formal experiments' that Marek talks about too, something like Josef Albers for gamers, or whatever. This is not for the purpose of reviving a long-dead debate or anything like that, I don't even know what people fight about in games criticism these days, but the idea of thinking through games in a formal way still has some motivating power for me, and at least in my personal perhaps-warped cosmology remains neglected by the broader culture. Anyway, it's not like plunderludics is the only way to get there, you can still make interactive formal experiments the old-fashioned way like Marek suggests, but maybe it's a different approach that could be fruitful.

sechniquexz, yeongrak

The other thing about doing collage is that it immediately and unavoidably brings up a relationship to history, memory etc. Oikospiel and Titanic II are games that take this aspect pretty seriously, making use of assets ripped from other games but also reflecting on what that process entails, folding those themes into the content of the work. What's different about plunderludic sampling at the level of software rather than assets is firstly that one deals with the game as an immediate undivided object rather than as already-separated assets, and secondly, that one has to deal with history and memory as they relate specifically to the interactive aspects of a game - the camera controller in super mario 64, the battle system in final fantasy, the weight of the car controls in gta, etc.*** Someone can probably say more about the relationship between gamefeel and memory (via sex if nothing else), or the implications of sampling from the particular troubled history of videogames, but I won't. (The same thecatamites essay I already linked is a place to start for both.)

Maybe another way of saying the same thing: it's like how Flan says about making use of Mario with all his pre-packaged archetypal-hero connotations - "knowing that we have these characters embedded in our subconscious and they might reappear in our dreams or thoughts to stand in for various things..." - don't you ever also dream of endlessly scrolling through the character select screen in Tekken 2, or shooting guys in the face in call of duty...? I don't think it's much of a stretch to imagine that the particular way a game responds to your button presses is something that also ends up embedded in your psyche. Without even needing to be interactive themselves I feel like some of yeongrak's or idkllr's collage videos prove this point well enough.

Edifice Apparition Encounter, idkllr

I don't have anything else to say about this other than that if anyone is reading this and wants examples of the stuff I'm talking about, my recommendations would be Mut's Tapestry and Tennis for One, and Jonny's Tetris, but all at once. Out of stuff I've made, maybe these three are my favorites. If you want to try making your own games in this vein, you can download the UnityHawk plugin (under development) and try it out, or join this discord and ask around.

A couple of other notes which don't fit anywhere else:

- Other people may be into the aspect of copyright law or intellectual property or whatever, like the plunderphonics guy John Oswald is. I don't really have an opinion about that; my interest in piracy and copyright violation isn't much more than selfish and practical.

- I think everything here also extends beyond videogames to software in general. Dealing with the qualities of interactive software on a small-scale and formal level is something that seems worth doing to me, and probably more relevant than videogames to a lot of people. And there's a particular game I want to make out of MS Word and Age of Empires II. The obstacles are logistical - for now Mut and Jonny and I have been using an emulator called BizHawk which supports a lot of platforms but pretty much limited to videogame consoles up to the 90s. I think more than that would be possible if anyone wanted to give us (or the BizHawk devs) money to figure it out.

- I've pretty much neglected to say anything about the ludic part of plunderludics, but it seems obvious that there's plenty to exploit here in terms of making games that are challenging/puzzling/fun. Mut's Auto Mario and Jonny's Tetris, but all at once are beautiful moves in this direction, and of course Multibowl. I trust everyone else to figure this bit out.

* Common if you count documentaries made of historical footage, or youtube/tiktok mashups, etc. Maybe less common in the sense of consciously appropriating/remixing other creative work ('Steps' is one nice one)

** When I say worthwhile I mean for my own benefit and maybe the benefit of a handful of people with an interest in experimental videogames. It's hard for me to imagine that there's any broader value to any of this stuff at all.

*** Of course in theory you could also just make a perfect recreation of such a system without sampling at all, but it's a very different process, maybe easier in some ways and more difficult in others.

**** Not to mention the converse process of recombining multiple samples, which in the simplest sense could just mean placing two samples next to each other (or in temporal sequence) in a way that seems to fit, or it could mean stitching games together via gamestate - Master Chief gets ammo when Mario loses health, etc. Mut's 'pacman controller' is one example of the latter, Archipelago is another one; many other possibilities probably exist.

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