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.

Worms and Bicycles Or How People Make For Strange Stories: Menocchio and Igor Kenk

I’ve been rereading Pop Sandbox’s Kenk: A Graphic Portrait and I kind of wish that this comics work had been published when I worked on a previous assignment of mine.

In one of my previous Graduate courses, our class had to read Carl Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller. It basically dealt with the idea that an individual can not only embody the culture that they come from, but that that person can represent different kinds of culture and actually interpret cultural information differently for themselves. Really, what I got out of it was that an individual can create their own world or mythic reality from information they have access to from their own culture.

As for why the work is called The Cheese and the Worms, it’s due to the fact that it focuses on the record of a man named Menocchio who compared the world’s creation to be not unlike that of rotten cheese. I’m not making this up: the Roman Inquisition that interrogated and took testimony from him apparently got this account from the man. So obviously, I felt compelled to do a presentation on this and focus my course paper on it because, well, look at the title and the subject matter. Really: how could I not?

I think that I found the most interesting about Menocchio himself was the examination of how he possibly came to the conclusions about the world that he did. He was not born of nobility or the upper-class in Italy, but rather came from a merchant culture. As such, while he was literate and he had the means to buy books, he also grew up with an oral literary tradition: a culture that passes on lore through the ages and word of mouth.

Ginzburg seemed to really like to point out the strangeness of this figure of Menocchio: how he was almost an intermediary between the oral and the written as well as peasant and “higher culture.” Menocchio himself lived during a time of transition between oral culture and the development of the printing press and written literacy: a revolution of sorts. Menocchio existed during the time of Martin Luther’s Reformation: where the ideas of Catholicism and Christianity itself were being challenged by the new Protestant movement using said printing presses. It is also worth mentioning that Ginzburg liked to examine colportage–cheaply printed chapbooks detailing songs, tales, and the lives of saints–as a backdrop of Menocchio’s literacy as well.

All of these traits and more are eerie parallels with Richard Poplak’s observations about Igor Kenk. Kenk grew up during a time between socialism and capitalism in Slovenia of the former Yugoslavia. One thing that Richard Poplak likes to point out is that it was also during this time period that common citizens in Slovenia were allowed access to photocopy machines: mechanisms of distributing information that were originally in the charge of the State. The counter-cultural Theatre FV 112/15 group– also known as the FV movement–used photocopiers to create a collage art known as FV Disco: a form of which–thanks to the artist Nick Marinkovich–Kenk also utilizes. This was the time and conceptual place where Kenk developed as an adult.

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As such, Kenk also possesses a very unique world-view based on the transitional culture of his time: the idea that all things can be recycled and that you need to choose to struggle in life in order to survive as a person: which is part of what he seems to call “The Monkey Factor” or survival. From what I understood of this book, his notion of “recycling” also seems to mean reselling stolen bikes as well as hoarding. As an aside, the fact that Kenk believed the system of debt, borrowing, and capitalism to be doomed is also linked to his philosophies and it’s only now, years after I read the first time, that I wonder what he would think of the Occupy movements back in 2008 before his arrest, and what they might think of him now.

Igor Kenk came from a social order that was radically changing and between extremes. He was considered to be a Math prodigy and did well in his education. For a time he was even a police officer in Slovenia–surviving their harsh regimen–until he was discharged, and then proceeded to cross the border into other countries to get goods as Slovenia’s political alignment and its economy changed. Then he eventually came to Canada and became something of a merchant himself by selling and fixing bicycles in Toronto.

What I’m trying to say is that both Kenk and Menocchio are products of their time and culture, but at the same time how they chose to interpret their changing cultures was very idiosyncratic to them. In other words, they created some very unique world-views. And both of them arguably paid for it by the powers that be: Menocchio with his life for not recanting his beliefs to the Roman Inquisition and Kenk doing jail time and losing his Bicycle Clinic for the thefts he was charged with.

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All of the above can arguably be considered gross simplifications, of course. In my paper that dealt with the implications of Menocchio, I pretty much say the same thing more or less. But I think the reason I’m attempting to compare two men from entirely different time periods, cultures, and countries is due to a greater issue: namely, why are they important?

I mean, come on: neither Menocchio nor Kenk would traditionally be considered important in a historical sense. In the grand scheme of things, someone might say that, while these parallels are interesting, who the hell cares?

The reason that I care, and one of the reasons why modern historians, journalists, and–in some ways more importantly readers–find these accounts so important is because they are narratives that deal with real people. It’s true that neither Menocchio nor Kenk are politicians, or artists, or even popular cultural figures in themselves but they are people that–while arguably normal or common in terms of class or historical significance–symbolize greater historical and cultural shifts by just being who they are.

They are ordinary people with very un-ordinary perspectives and there was a time where we would never have even known about them: or at the very least we’d only get a summary of them in passing … or at least we’d get something like this from a dominant or “higher cultural” narrative. Because there is one thing I keep coming back to in my head: it is the idea of oral history.

What is oral history? We know that oral culture or literacy is something that is passed on verbally from one storyteller to the next throughout many generations. But history, as Westerners, understand it is derived from the ancient Greek word historia: which is something along the lines of scientific inquiry or observation. Oral history, from my understanding, is thus something of verbal origin that is written down for other people to see.

Menocchio’s “worm and cheese world” survived through the written accounts of his interrogators, whereas Kenk seems to have actually been interviewed by the book’s producer Alex Jansen and filmed by Jason Gilmore as he espouses his world-view of “Monkey Factors and recycling” in that context.

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Oral culture in our world is very different in that we have sophisticated image and audio technology to preserve and record the spoken word, and where that spoken word comes from. There is a scholar named Walter Ong–who I looked at in my own studies for my Master’s Thesis–who looked at oral culture and degrees of orality.

Ong believed that there is something called “secondary orality”: in which spoken word is preserved through technological means like video and radio. But I’ve always wondered if he would have included illustrated images in this definition as well, and how problematic it would be if these images were accompanied by written words. Can the visual be considered part of the oral or the written, or is it something by itself? Obviously I’m talking about the medium of comics and what kind of literacy that would be defined as but–this tangent aside for now–right now I’m thinking about the idea of oral history being a historical narrative that records down what life and reality is like for “the common person”: if there is any such thing as a common person.

I actually think that this conception of oral history has led to the idea of journalism: of interviewing and recording down what a particular person or witness has to say, and then researching the environment in which this person came from for a greater perspective. Is journalism the child of oral history? And then you take something like Kenk into consideration too: something that is written down but also given a sequential FV Disco style is that is both an illustrative and video collage aesthetic.

It’s fascinating to think about Kenk as an artifact of not only “comics journalism”–a medium that some comics creators like Joe Sacco have already developed–but also written literacy, oral culture, history, and mass-produced art. I look at Kenk and I wonder if this is our contemporary version of the colportage of Menocchio’s time, or the pamphlets and photocopies of 1980s Slovenia. Because in the end, it’s not just Menocchio and Kenk that have a lot in common, but also the media used to try and capture what they are … and what they are not.

When I started writing this article, I thought it was going to be easy: like it was all fully formed in my head. In a way I’m doing what I said I would not do by delving more into the academics I’ve tried to put some distance from: at least with regards to jargon. My train of thought tends to drift and it has been a struggle to communicate and even cohesively perceive all of these parallels here.

But if this were a paper of mine, if this were some rough form of the Graduate essays I would write, I would end this post in the following manner. As someone who has studied mythic world-building, I believe that art is an engagement with different parts of the world around you, and an expression of who you are as a result of what you choose to accept of that world. In that, the man called Menocchio and Igor Kenk–specifically in how their scholars and artists portray them–not only made their own art, but actually lived their art, and allowed for the creation of more of it.

I also believe that when you take all of this into account oral history, journalism, comics journalism, or whatever you want to call it reveals one more truth. Writing about an individual not only reveals that there are no “ordinary people,” but that it never makes for making any “ordinary stories.” Ever.

Again, I’d like to thank Alex Jansen and Jason Gilmore for lending me these pages of Kenk to place here in my article to make both point and emphasis.

If you are interested in this topic, you might like my What is FV Disco article as well. They both deal with similar subject matter, but in different ways.