Mac-Pix-el! I promise you’ll understand when you play.
It’s a beautiful day out. You’re having a nice trip to the zoo. Hey, look over there, a giraffe! You saunter over to get a closer look, and– is that dynamite in its mouth!? Quick, use the syringe! There is no syringe, silly. You’re on top of a train, and you’ve got to put out a cabin fire. By peeing on it. No, you’re not on a hallucinogenic trip. Even better: you’re playing McPixel.
The best games are the kind that question core assumptions about how we play, and McPixel is like the demented Socrates of point-and-click adventures. It asks fans of the genre to give up control over the “adventure” part to which they’ve grown so accustomed, and join Polish indie developer Sos Sosowski on a frenzy of pointing and clicking through space and time. Split into over a hundred micro-levels, the game presents you – and your reluctant, red-shirted hero McPixel – with one goal: save the day. Every twenty-second scenario challenges you to stop a deadly explosion by interacting with one or a couple of the game’s people, animals, or objects. Together, six scenes form a tenuously themed chapter.
If this all sounds a little chaotic, then I’ve done my job. McPixel is an exercise in ordered chaos, in the bottling of cacophony. At first, it will almost certainly paralyze you with its abrasive lack of instructions, as it throws you from menus where you’re not quite sure what to click into levels where you’re absolutely not sure what to click. Like any trial by fire, though, it’s worth sticking with, because your soul will have been enriched when you emerge victorious on the other side. Or at least your sense of humor.
See, the thing about McPixel is that its seeming disregard for the player is belied by the most important thing of all: a huge respect for them. Far from being obnoxious just to be obnoxious, the game’s hands-off approach gives way to a sense of true discovery. Rather than parrot back a set of inputs following a lengthy tutorial, you’re left to navigate the murky waters of uncertainty, making the lightbulb moments all the more genuine when they happen. Sosowski knows what he’s doing, too. Failure comes fast – after your first wrong item selection, or every twenty seconds, and you’re automatically brought to the next scene to try your hand at being a hero.
And then, out of the blue, you think to yourself, what if I drop this spider in the gas can? And suddenly you’ve saved yourself and the poor window washer suspended twenty stories about the ground from an imminent explosion. And it’s magical. Your synapses start firing in colors you didn’t know existed, and making obscure connections between objects that used to have no meaning. And soon enough, you’re going straight for the DJ turntable when the scene starts, totally unsurprised by the fact that it cuts through a party-goer’s afro and the stick of dynamite contained within it.
Even still, McPixel keeps things from getting rote…by a long shot. Less like solving a math problem, and more like learning a language, the game is constantly throwing you exceptions to its own rules. Messing with its own internal logic to force you to consider ways of saving the day that are outside whatever place lies outside the box. Hell, the box is a dot to this game. By providing you with a dead-simple touch to move and tap to interact control scheme, however, you’re given a dependable foundation to Sosowski’s wacky house of cards. Perhaps the only other dependable thing in sight? The knowledge that you can’t depend on anything.
Solutions may occasionally repeat themselves – I certainly remember having to pee on fires more than once to save the day – but overall, McPixel demands you think like a socially inept 8-bit detective, considering the weirdest possible angle first. In its own way, this creates a sort of rhythm that dictates gameplay. Begin by failing almost every puzzle just so you can get a look at the surroundings and take stock of every object. React by trying the most improbable combo you can think of…fail. Begin to get frustrated at your inability to crack the code. Decry the puzzle as nonsensical. Remember that one object you saw but forgot to try to tap. Try it. Succeed. Laugh at the hilarious solution that seems so painfully obvious now. Of course I needed to steal the general’s hat to make him think I was in charge, so I could order him to carry away the nuke!
In this way, McPixel does perhaps the most audacious thing of all: embrace the idea that joy in gaming comes in equal measure from knowing what you’re doing and having absolutely no clue. Betting big on the concept that games aren’t simple tests of what you can already do, but tests to see how much you’re willing to learn. And hey. It doesn’t hurt that Sosowski packs every scene with video-game related in jokes, pop culture references, and intertextual nods to earlier characters, improbably crafting a world one twenty second scene at a time.