You know what I love? Pinball mode. It’s a power-up in Carmageddon that practically breaks the game for as long as it is active. I love the absurdity of pinball mode. I love that this ability is so unruly, so unpredictable that every time it is activated it might just break the game. Basically, I love a game that is not afraid to be broken.
Carmageddon is old and, let’s face it, a little bit horrible. It’s the poster boy for everything that is still wrong with video games to this day: a dependency on cheap humour and over-the-top violence and controversy just to sell a few copies. It was always fun. But it was always kind of terrible.
So when I returned to the surprisingly playable iOS re-release this past week, I was surprised (and just a little bit embarrassed) at just how much I still enjoyed it. Apparently, part of my mind is still a thirteen-year-old boy who just wants to run down some pedestrians.
But beneath the crass humour and the still quite shocking violence, there is actually some really interesting game design happening in Carmaggedon. Much like more modern games like Just Cause 2, Carmageddon isn’t interested in seeing the player fail challenges but, rather, in just allowing cool stuff to happen.
Each ‘race’ is on an open map. You have opponents, but you can’t lose the race. You win by either finishing all the checkpoints, splatting all the pedestrians or, most likely, from wasting all the enemy cars. You can’t die (the worst you can do is spend more credits on repairing yourself than you gain from causing havoc, but that is highly unlikely). You can’t lose. You just play around until you decide you want to win.
Each race is really just a playground where you muck around, be a terrible person, and laugh at what happens. In this framework, pinball mode fits perfectly.
Pinball mode is one of the game’s many random powerups spread around the levels. While it is active, objects will bounce away from a wall at a higher velocity than what they hit it at. This can easily be taken advantage of in amazing, game-breaking ways. If you find two walls fairly close together, you can bounce between them to build up your velocity exponentially. Your car bounces and smashes between them, getting faster and faster, until a line of code under the game’s bonnet eventually snaps and your car shoots right through a solid wall or launches itself so high in the air that, for a moment, the entire stage is visible below you. By this stage, your car is probably as flat as a pancake and spurting flames everywhere — but it’s nothing a quick repair can’t fix.
It allows all kinds of absurd scenarios to play out that could only ever happen in a video game that doesn’t mind being broken. In one game, this particularly magnificent scene played out. (As a side note: Carmaggedon clearly knows it is a game people play just to make cool stuff happen as it includes the ability to save and share videos easily).
On another race, after bouncing all over the map, I landed in an alleyway on the wrong side of a solid stone wall that you are not meant to be able to get past. Behind me was white nothingness, and driving that way tipped me off the edge of the world. The game would recover me… but still place me on the wrong side of the wall. I was trapped. The only way out was to quit the race.
But instead of being angry, I just kinda chuckled at myself, like a teenager who just got in trouble. Yeah, I kinda deserved that when I smashed into that first wall on purpose in the football stadium, but whatever, it was worth it.
More than having broken the game or wasting my time on that stage that I would now have to restart, I felt like I had successfully escaped. I had taken pinball mode and I used it to smash through the cell that is the developer’s intentions of what I do with the game. While I am up there in the sky or flipping all over the map, I am totally out of control and, paradoxically, totally free. I might be doing exactly what pinball mode is meant to do, but I am also doing what the game is not meant for. Pinball mode intentionally and magnificently breaks the shackles the game holds me down with.
The difference between Carmageddon and other games with easy exploits, I think, is that Carmageddon was always asking to be broken. The developers always left the key to my cell just within arms reach. The game’s very existence pushed at people to see how far it could push them until they snapped. It deliberately courted controversy with its crass, immature content, and indeed manage to be one of the first games banned in the UK (before SCI successfully appealed) — although somehow it managed to enter Australia unchanged.
And, really, pinball mode is just an extension of this. A mechanic that the developers deliberately left open, deliberately allowed to potentially break the game. Just as I was asking for it when I launched myself out of the map, the game’s developers were asking for it when they created pinball mode, and they knew it.
And that’s why I love pinball mode. Today, even the openest of open-world games go to great lengths to ensure we can’t actually break anything while we are visiting them. Carmageddon, on the other hand, is just curious to know how badly we can trash the joint.