Trig­ger Happy

Steven Poole talks us through his bomb-proof plan for re­tire­ment


It might seem weird to think videogames used to come with man­u­als – at least to peo­ple who have known only hours-long tu­to­rial lev­els, Game­FAQs, in­struc­tional videos on YouTube, and what­not. But they did. The man­u­als were con­certi­naed cas­sette in­lays, and later lit­tle in-box book­lets, de­scrib­ing not only the con­trols but giv­ing back­story and ad­vis­ing on tech­niques and tac­tics. The best game man­u­als were tiny works of lit­er­ary art in them­selves. I was one of those who re­li­giously sat down and read the en­tire man­ual be­fore ever start­ing to play the game. But the man­ual is a mori­bund form now, and hours of FMV ex­po­si­tion and NPC nag­ging have be­come the norm.

No doubt it’s be­cause I’m some­one who likes read­ing – and who, as a writer, is ob­vi­ously in­vested in other peo­ple con­tin­u­ing to read – that I’m happy there’s at least one mod­ern game that ab­so­lutely re­quires a mas­sive man­ual. In fact you lit­er­ally can­not play it with­out the man­ual – be­cause it’s a twoplayer videogame in which one per­son is just read­ing the man­ual and talk­ing to the other per­son. This is the bril­liant Keep Talk­ing And No­body Ex­plodes, in which one per­son has to defuse a bomb on screen but has no idea how to ma­nip­u­late its puz­zle-like com­po­nents, while the other per­son isn’t al­lowed to look at the screen but is in pos­ses­sion of the Bomb De­fusal Man­ual, and thus is des­ig­nated the Ex­pert.

This setup in­ge­niously in­cor­po­rates amus­ingly frus­trat­ing ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ences. It’s like an old com­edy sketch in which two peo­ple are try­ing to assem­ble Ikea fur­ni­ture, one read­ing the in­struc­tions and the other de­spair­ingly turn­ing an Allen key. It’s also – when you’re play­ing the part of the Ex­pert – very much like be­ing on the phone to your par­ents and try­ing to ex­plain how to do some­thing on their com­puter with­out be­ing able to see what they’re ac­tu­ally do­ing on screen in re­sponse to your ad­vice.

It’s a lit­er­ary tri­umph too, in the most per­verse way, be­cause the man­ual is de­lib­er­ately writ­ten in an ex­tremely con­fus­ing man­ner, re­quir­ing the Ex­pert to nav­i­gate thick­ets of ir­ra­tionally struc­tured in­for­ma­tion stuck to­gether with neg­a­tive syn­tax, counter-in­tu­itive com­bi­na­tions of con­di­tion­als, and bizarre ex­cep­tions. If there’s more than one yel­low wire and the se­rial num­ber on the bomb con­tains a vowel but there’s no flash­ing light, then press the big but­ton but keep it held down un­til you’ve read the sec­tion about hold­ing down but­tons… That sort of thing. One big list of rules for var­i­ous num­bers will have the play­ers re­peat­edly fail­ing un­less the Ex­pert no­tices that a sin­gle word in the middle some­times changes. It’s as if Dou­gal from Father Ted had been tasked with de­sign­ing an en­gi­neer­ing flow­chart.

The dy­namic of the high-stakes con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the play­ers is thus ripe for mis­un­der­stand­ings and pre­ma­ture ex­plo­sions. Jeop­ardy is fur­ther height­ened by wicked fea­tures of the on­screen bomb de­sign, where the De­fuser’s at­ten­tion is de­lib­er­ately mis­di­rected by dif­fer­ences in vis­ual em­pha­sis (“No, I said the WHITE light!” “Oh, I didn’t no­tice the white light!”). Com­bine all this with a bru­tal clock timer on ev­ery bomb and you have the po­ten­tial for in­com­pre­hen­sion, blame, and counter-blame.

Of course, there’s also a deep plea­sure in col­lab­o­ra­tion. Work­ing many rounds with the same part­ner, oc­ca­sion­ally swap­ping roles, you de­velop a unique shared vo­cab­u­lary for the game’s sys­tems. My girl­friend and I quickly gave short­hand names to the var­i­ous pos­si­ble bomb sub-mod­ules, as well as to each a set of weird pseudo-al­pha­bet­i­cal sym­bols so we could re­fer to them ef­fi­ciently. The bomb was our shared en­emy. Very lit­tle else in the medium can beat the amaz­ing team-fist­pump mo­ment when, with half a se­cond to go and no time for her (the Ex­pert) to read about the big but­ton la­belled Det­o­nate, I just pressed it any­way, and… the bomb was made safe. It’s a won­der­fully silly game, yet maybe Keep Talk­ing And No­body Ex­plodes would also be a re­ally good ex­er­cise to use in cou­ples’ coun­selling. Af­ter all, it’s a ma­chine for gen­er­at­ing con­flict, and how peo­ple deal with con­flict de­ter­mines how suc­cess­ful their re­la­tion­ships will be. The coun­sel­lor could record them play­ing it and dis­cussing it af­ter­wards, and then sug­gest strate­gies for bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion and res­o­lu­tion of dif­fer­ences. On se­cond thought, for­get I said that. I’m just off to set up a highly lu­cra­tive videopsy­chother­apy prac­tice in Hamp­stead.

It’s a won­der­fully silly game, yet maybe it would also be a re­ally good ex­er­cise to use in cou­ples’ coun­selling

Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.o is now avail­able from Ama­zon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­

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