This Game Has No Warp Zone: A Review of Pipe Trouble

Pipe Trouble

“I like games with consequences.”

This is what a friend of mine told me not too long ago with regards to online games, but it is a sentiment that can easily be applied to video games in general. I know that I–and many other more eloquent and informed people on the matter–have stated that the medium of the video game can be used for more than just entertainment value. The medium of a video game is as its very core an interactive experience that, like any other art form, can get us to relate to the world around us in a different way.

However, with regards to Pipe Trouble, there is also the matter of responsibility to consider as well.

Pipe Trouble is a game created by Pop Sandbox Productions, produced by Alex Jansen, and co-designed by Jim Munroe. It was apparently made as a companion piece to the TVO-commissioned documentary Trouble in the Peace: a film directed by Julian T. Pinder and produced by Six Island Productions about gas leaks affecting Northern British Columbia farmers in the Peace River region and in particular one man and father, who has decided to do something about it.

Before I decided to write this article, I did not know that Pipe Trouble was a digital complement to this documentary. In fact, the entire subject matter that both the film and the game seem to encompass–Canadian farms encountering potentially lethal gas leaks from pipelines of gas companies in their regions–is not usually something I tend to focus on with more than passing attention. After a while, and as cynical as it gets, news of “corrupt corporations, victims and innocent bystanders, and eco-terrorist reprisals” tends to become oversimplified by the media.

It is one thing, however, to hear and watch something about a matter that seemingly doesn’t concern you as an individual. It is a whole other thing to find yourself in a situation–even if it is a simulation with a satirical veneer–where you are in a position of great responsibility.

What Pop Sandbox is attempting to do to this regard is not something new, but rather it is a very familiar idea they have worked with expressed into a different medium. While I did write an article or two on Kenk: A Graphic Portrait a fair while ago, what I might have neglected to mention is that one major theme in the graphic novel–also made by Pop Sandbox–is that everyone has a part to play in a particular social action. In the case of Igor Kenk and his stolen bicycles, it is made clear that everyone–to the people who bought bicycles from him, to even the people who purchased their stolen bikes back, to law enforcement and Toronto City Hall–knew about what he was doing and, just as they condemned it, they also tolerated and even to some extent accepted it a part of their social system. With regards to Kenk, Pop Sandbox illustrated–quite literally–how Igor Kenk was just part of a social dynamic–of a collaboration–in which the rest of the city was also a part.

But Pop Sandbox goes even further with Pipe Trouble. While Kenk simply observes a social structure and interaction, Pipe Trouble makes the player-audience interact immediately and directly with the issue as clearly, and as simply put, as possible.

In other words, you–the player–are placed as the manager of a gas company apparently situated in the Canadian Province of Alberta and you must please your superiors and make them money, keep the people who need your corporation’s services in mind, do as little damage to farmland, animals, humans, and the environment as possible, and try not to piss anyone off.

It is very clever. It is very easy to vilify a company or a corporation as a soulless entity that only caters to the very rich, squashes agriculture and “the lower classes,” and pollutes the environment without any understanding of what it might be doing or–worse–even care. It is just as easy to lionize a pipe bomber as a freedom fighter against a tyrannical force even as it is to denigrate them as a terrorist that likes to destroy human lives and a Western way of life: whatever that is.

However, natural gas is one of those resources necessary for a modern society to function and a corporation is made by people. As such, someone has to be in charge of providing that corporation’s service, making a living from it, avoiding bad press and blame while attempting to integrate their industrial system into the environment and those existing within it with as little damage as possible. It is no tall order and not an enviable position: especially when you are forced to do it in a game.

It is no coincidence that this game is modelled after the 1989 puzzle game alternatively called Pipe Mania or Pipe Dream. And even though the title itself brings to mind some bad bodily jokes, even that connotation has its point when looking at the game. In Pipe Dream, you have to build pipes to direct the flow of filth inside of a sewer. Pipe Trouble takes a similar mechanic and makes the oncoming substance also toxic, but also worth money. One person’s poison is another one’s livelihood.

You have two men on either of your screen. I would be tempted to call them “the angel” and “the devil” on either of your shoulders, save that both of them aren’t necessarily “good” or “evil.” The man on your left is a farmer that is watching your progress in placing down pipes with oncoming gas with great interest and caution. If you destroy the land too much, there will be protesters that will block your pipe route. How long they stay in front of your progress will all depend on just how much damage they perceived you to have done. This farmer will keep watching you and will warn you only once not to mess with his land.

Then you have the man on your right: your boss. He is the one informing you of when the gas will start flowing (right when you place a pipe down to get from Point A to Point B) and he will keep track of the money you are making … and losing with delays. That’s right. If you do not place your pipes fast enough, not only will you risk a gas leak poisoning a lake, killing animals, and other horrors but you will lose your company money and your boss will sure as hell hold you responsible and, if we are going for realism, probably put it all on your head when the bad press comes out.

I swear: when I first played this game and that gas started to flow and sometimes I didn’t move fast enough, or have the right pipe piece to place down or even put it in the proper place, that sense of panic sets in. Then you add the pixilated animals that prance and eat in the woods and you are thinking real hard about how to not disturb them: never mind potentially kill them. And that is not even including the fear of getting more protesters in your way that will get more organized and then sometimes even use some nice industrial sabotage against your pipeline: causing more death, destruction, money loss, and bad press. And guess who would probably be held responsible for all of that?

You’re looking at yourself.

It’s like playing Tetris … only with people’s lives. And remember how I didn’t make any bodily function jokes? Well, the ideal is to treat the entire process like the human body. The release of energy, the disposal of waste, and the structure of what you are trying to build is supposed to create a balance with the ecosystem, agriculture, and animal and human health. But as you play and it gets harder, you will become aware of the fact that this game is an idealist’s nightmare. You will have to make some very difficult decisions as you realize that you might not have time to build around that forest to your pipeline’s destination or you might have to be innovative and make some alternate routes in a very set time frame, but in the end you will have to make some very hard choices.

Do not let the game’s cheerful 8-bit pixilated graphics and basic soft-edged square shaped sprite characters fool you. Jim Munroe was also co-designer behind this game. He is an independent Canadian science fiction and comics writer, among other things, that likes to take grandiose topics like haunted TTC Stations, North America becoming destitute in a futuristic era, and a post-apocalyptic world after the Christian Rapture and completely twist them upside down and make it about human characters and life going on. More than coincidentally, Munroe is also the Hand Eye Society’s Project Coordinator for the development of the Torontrons: essentially retrofitted arcade cabinets that play newly made video games. He may have been involved with the pretty nifty creation of the Pipe Trouble game cabinet as well: which, as the link explains, will be placed in areas of high traffic such as universities, city centres, and tourist attractions.

I don’t know what else to add here. Inter-dispersed between levels are radio segments from news anchored events dealing with natural gas industry controversies which I didn’t originally hear until I played the game again at home on the free trial demo. Also, not too long ago I found out that the game itself has created a whole lot of controversy. Apparently TVO–one of the game’s sponsors–has been accused, among other things, of potentially giving eco-terrorists “ideas” by supporting the creation of the game. TVO has apparently removed links to Pipe Trouble from their website with pending investigations into the matter on their end to see if they were in “the wrong.” There seem to be some definite misunderstandings over various issues, but if one goal of this game is to encourage people to think, then controversy–though unfortunate–is one way of getting there. Either way, it definitely hit a nerve in that intersection where art and politics clash.

I think my concluding thought about this entire game is that the title “Pipe Trouble,” again, can mean a lot of things. And it wasn’t until I read the above article that I began to think about it a little more. I don’t generally look at these kinds of games, never mind write about them–especially with how close it comes to politics–but there is something really fascinating about the dynamics that Pop Sandbox attempts to create, identify, satirize, educate and help people relate to. And politics itself is an exchange of power and watching how and through what medium that power is ultimately exchanged through.

You see, I’m looking at pipes as symbolic of devices that link us together and support a communication of ideas. They can create a very interactive and comprehensive system of healthy self-regulation but when there are so many elements in play, things can go wrong, words can break down, and people and the world around them can suffer for it. But whatever else this game accomplishes, it definitely makes you think about these issues and how they are not entirely separate after all: neither from each other, nor from you.

What is FV Disco?

Disko FV

All right, so it’s been a while since I have really challenged myself to do something different. This challenge, however, has been a long time in the making and I’ve been trying to find the best way to go about it. It won’t be perfect and I’m sure that there is scholarship and writing out that is far more accurate and well-written on the topic, but really this is just a possible answer to something that’s been nagging at me for a while now.

Anyway, two years ago I read a really cool graphic novel called Kenk: a comics biography of the infamous Torontonian bicycle thief Igor Kenk. It deals with his possible psychological motivations for his actions, his own personal philosophies, and how his background may have influenced the man he has become. The comic was actually conceived and produced by Alex Jansen, written by Richard Poplak, the photographs and filming it was based from–along with its design–created by Jason Gilmore, and Nick Marinkovich was integral in illustrating and creating its aesthetic. I wrote a review on this at Amazon: with very little understanding of the choice of art-style at the time.

I didn’t think much about Nick Marinkovich’s unique art at the time, aside from its strange sharpened and accentuated angles, the occasional blurry lines, the really incredible contrast of the white stark outlines of people and objects containing an inner gritty grey and black, and the pastiche feeling of it until I watched this interview: conducted by QTV on CBC1 Radio with both Richard Poplak and Alex Jansen. Poplak himself talked a little more about the aesthetics of the graphic novel. First he stated that he and the graphic artist Nick Marinkovich used the fumetti comics medium form: which is basically comic book that uses photos or arrangements of altered photos to tell a story. There is a wikipedia entry and other information on the fumetti form.

However, Poplak also mentioned that he traveled to Slovenia–Igor Kenk’s home country where he grew up–and found another form of art: which the Pop Sandbox team ended up using for their creation. When I first heard him say the name, I didn’t understand what he was talking about. I actually missed the word several times before rewinding the video and hearing it again. Now, I pride myself on finding out as much about the comics medium and associated art forms as I can and this bothered me: the fact that I didn’t know what this word was.

Finally, I made out the word “Faeve” or “Fauve.” But then after some more online digging I came across the Kenk book site and I found out that it was FV Disco that Poplak had been talking about. It was in fact the definition that Poplak provided here and on 12:17 of his QTV Interview that I used when describing the style of Fotonixe’s artwork in my entry on TweakerRay’s Collector Chapter 02: the idea of a gritty-collage like arrangement of photos and images with a dark punk-like atmosphere. As I said in my previous entry, Fotonixe’s style reminded me of this and wasn’t necessarily derived from it. But this did get me thinking.

Because I can tell you that I have tried to google FV Disco several times–specifically as an art form–and I didn’t get very much. It also took me ages–in fact very recently–to realize that FV was in fact pronounced as “fauve” or some equivalent and wasn’t an acronym or a pair of letters. A little while ago, I figured out that the term FV Disco seems to have come from an influential Slovenian alternate theatre turned counter-cultural group or club called Theatre FV 112/15: a group that turned into a movement in Ljubljana–the capital of Slovenia–in the changing former Yugoslavia of the 1980s: where Poplak says that FV Disco itself came from. I found out the name of the group by finding an article on a Goth Rock and Electronic Body Music group called Borghesia: that was apparently formed from some of Theatre FV’s original members.

It was greatly involved with video art as well as music and as it transitioned from an amateur theatre group into an alternative club that made a space for sexual, social, and artistic differences: or so this article here claims.

But very recently I found out what “FV” or “Faeve” is might mean. I found–or perhaps–rediscovered an article by Katja Praznik called Theatre, Emancipation and Political Power: Two Cases From the Past in which she explains that FV “refers to France Verbinc’s (FV) local, frequently used Dictionary of Foreign Terms, page 112, entry 15, where we find the following: C’est la guerre – This is war, that’s how it is in war.” In other words, the group’s name seems to have been derived from a citation or a quote that is appropriate given the climate in which the group was created. This was during the time after Tito’s death where Yugoslavia was beginning to change–to separate–and there were great artistic expressions of socialism and capitalism occurring.

Richard Poplak himself argues that this was what was occurring in Igor Kenk’s formative years in Slovenia and it affected him. There is one element of this movement that Poplak pays great attention to when he discusses it in the above synopsis. He states that the primary medium of FV Disco–what seems to be the artistic as opposed to musical and performative aspects of it–was the photocopy machine: “an agent of democracy because it put publishing – which was until then state-run – in the hands of the people.” It is interesting to note that when I’ve looked at Kenk, the images did seem almost like propaganda posters and pictures rearranged into a different collage form entirely. I can see how–as advertisements for FV Disco’s musical and social scenes and as art in itself–just how subversive it was in that changing environment. Add to the fact that there was a “a gritty punk” element alongside it makes for a really interesting aesthetic and atmosphere.

I think what I find most fascinating about it, at least from what Poplak describes, is how FV Disco takes old ideas and objects and rearranges them: in fact recycles them.  But it’s more complex than that. Praznik in her article likes to state that Theatre FV wanted to create “spaces” or alternative realities in a rapidly changing socialist environment where people could express themselves. She also mentions that one objective of this movement, and those like it, were to blur the line between the performance and the viewer: or art and reality.

In a way, Theatre FV was one of those responsible for creating new wombs of artistic culture and reality and I can see–in that sense–just how all the above might have affected Igor Kenk’s philosophies. He liked to recycle and “hoard” things that North Americans apparently take for granted. The man was also aware of how economic and political systems can change rapidly and the crafting of his own world-view and indeed his life, seems like a haphazard collage of grittiness and innovation. Even Kenk’s own “performance stage”–a Bicycle Clinic filled with so many bikes that he had to spill them from the space of his shop into the streets just to open the door–did not separate itself from the rest of Queen Street West Toronto or the sphere of people it brought in.

Customers, and pedestrians alike were brought into his world of bikes and junk. I never saw it like this until I did some of my own amateurish haphazard research into the matter. It really made me look at the aesthetic of the Kenk graphic novel even more closely. In his article Portrait of a Serial Stealer, Richard Poplak goes into a little more detail on FV and even talks about how his artistic collaborator Nick Marinkovich creates the style of the piece: detailing some of the work that he did. It also hits home the fact that Poplak and the rest of the team that made the book adapted it from actual photo and video footage produced by Jansen and Gilmore: the latter of which are the most references I’ve been able to find on the FV movement aside from those from Poplak.

What I think is a real shame though, in all honesty, is that FV Disco–or Theatre FV 112/15–doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page or a more indepth English language entry of some kind: because it is a really fascinating social and artistic phenomenon to come from a socialist nation that no longer exists and I never put much thought about it at the time. It makes me wonder just how much it might have influenced other forms of art: not just in Eastern Europe but the rest of the world as well.

One more interesting of note is that there is a 1997 documentary called Staro in Novo or The Old and The New created by Neven Korda and Zemira Alajbegovic: who were, according to the site Zank, apparently leading members of the old FV Theatre group and then of Borghesia. They made something called FV Video where they created this documentary: of which I could only find excerpts on Youtube. Copies of the video cassette do exist in some Universities even in North America but I’m not sure if there are any DVD versions, but apparently you can download it here. But it would be an interesting thing to look at.

One thing that I also find interesting is on the site VideoDokument, Korda and Alajbegovic not only talk about the creation of video art, they mention that “Although the images move and we can hear them, video takes much more from comics than it does from film. It was comics that encouraged sequencing and the combination and movement of images, sounds and stories.” I find that a really nice parallel to how Kenk was influenced as a comics form by video and other media from the FV movement. I should also point out that Kenk is also being adapted into an animated film: perhaps making the journey between FV-influenced film and comics come full circle.

I’ll tell you now that I’m not up to the task of making a Wikipedia article on this matter. I’ve said before that I am no musical expert or even an artistic one. I am certainly no expert in Slovenia or Eastern European culture, but it would be nice if someone did this: because I think it’s important. It’s also a shame I can’t find any FV Disco art online as well and I will probably post a picture from Kenk. It seems that the scholar in me doesn’t die so easily, but I just like to write about things that interest me and go on an adventure to see what I can uncover from them when they are being too stubborn to be found.

Some special notes and thanks: the really awesome and emblematic “Disko FV” image seen above this post is actually a hand-made security ribbon taken from the collection of Dario Seraval: one of the former members of the Theatre FV-112/15 group and current member and drummer for Borghesia. The images from the graphic novel Kenk were very generously lent to this post by Alex Jansen and Jason Gilmore. Believe or not I underestimated how much time and effort making this post and finding images for it would take, but in the end thanks to correspondence with Aldo Ivancic (another former member of Theatre FV and current member of Borghesia whom I talked with about using said ribbon) and Alex Jansen, as well as Richard Poplak, Neven Korda, and museum counsellor Breda Skrjanec of the MGLC (the Mednarodni Grafični Likovni Center), it was all worth it.

Addendum: If you are particularly interested in FV Disco, you can try to track down the MGLC’s art catalogue from its FV Alternative Scene of the Eighties 2008 Exhibit. It has a Slovene and an English language translation as well. The book is composed of photographs, art samples, an introduction, three essays, and a chronology of events and developments in FV Disco.