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.stevenpoole.net