Videogames

Applying Ragdoll Physics to Existential Faceplants

Lately I have the feeling that I’m just flailing through my life, which might explain why I’ve been so entertained by video games based on the humorous possibilities of ragdoll physics. I’m not actually staggering around the world like a drunken noodle-person, but I can really relate to the noodle-person experience on a metaphorical level. It’s like I can kind of see where I need to get to, but the camera angle keeps flipping around as I bumble in that general direction and I have no idea how to get myself to do the things that have to happen in order to make it. And when I fail, I just drop out of the sky and end up lying sprawled on the floor in the same room over and over again. It’s much more entertaining in a game than it is in real life.  

Ragdoll physics is an animation technique used to program video game characters to collapse in (relatively) realistic ways when they fall, so that their bodies conform to the surfaces they land on and move around if they collide with anything after falling. The body is essentially managed as a set of rigid objects which are tethered together with specific rules and constraints on how they can move in relation to one another, so they can collapse in a variety of ways. It’s like those toy animals where the component parts are held together with strings and when you press the bottom of the stand it releases the tension so they collapse randomly, but there are still a limited number of ways they could fall based on how the strings connect and the length and shape of the parts. There often isn’t much in the way of realistic resistance in the joints to stand in for muscle action, so the characters tend to collapse suddenly and in sometimes entertainingly unnatural positions, like rag dolls.   

A lot of games use rag doll techniques, but there is a whole genre that has picked up at the borders of where the physics engines fail and made it the central mechanic in the game, with players attempting to achieve tasks as endlessly floppy, flailing characters. They’ve taken something that was designed to be serious but ended up having an unintentionally comic effect and applied it somewhere else to be intentionally hilarious. Two great examples are Human Fall Flat, a title that pretty much describes my metaphorical experience, and Totally Accurate Battle Simulator (T.A.B.S.), which is…not accurate. Or rather, I suppose it would be difficult to assess the accuracy unless you had personally fought battles in a noodle dimension. 

The characters in No Brakes Games’ puzzle-platformer Human Fall Flat (Steam, PS4, Xbox, Switch) play like one of those dreams where you’re trying to dial a phone or type something on a keyboard but you have giant sausage fingers and all you can do is jam every button at once. They climb cliffs like someone at the gym who hasn’t done a pull up in years, totally underestimated how hard it would be, and is now flopping around in the most uncool way imaginable. It’s kind of slapstick comedy, but where slapstick relies on physical mastery and very precise timing and choreography in order to appear clumsy in a way that is funny, this is based on random combinations within a set of semi-logical rules mimicking extreme clumsiness and resulting in humor a certain percentage of the time. I can only imagine what comic geniuses like Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts could have done if their bodies moved like this.

I’m usually not a big fan of battle games, but Totally Accurate Battle Simulator (Steam, Epic, Xbox) from self-described “smol studio” Landfall Games is just so silly and creative that it sucks me in. It has all the battle arenas and mechanics you’d expect, but the options to customize characters include ridiculous things like an anglerfish head, shoulder crows, and the ability to throw vast quantities of apples at your enemies. Battles are full-on noodley chaos, with dozens of creatures hurling themselves at each other and colliding in impossibly bendy ways, sometimes on impossibly bendy horses. You can even make one character ride another one, and if the rider is bigger then they collapse slowly to the ground and flop towards enemies like they’re trying to do the worm. One of the most hilarious scenarios is when two vampiric characters get locked into combat, launching themselves face first at whatever part of each other they can sink their teeth into and tumbling around all twisted up like a bizarre balloon animal. If you take over a character in first person, nothing you do with the controls necessarily has the effect you expect it to and you can have the up close and personal experience of tripping unpredictably over your own rubbery legs, arms, hat, lobster claws, knee crows, or [fill in the blank with your imagination, you could probably trip over it in this game]. 

In a way, having incompetent characters makes a game easier and more accessible for kids or people who are not gamers, and it is easier in the sense that you don’t have to be good at it exactly or master any fancy multi-button combo moves, but sometimes it takes more skill to manage to do something badly in an entertaining way. T.A.B.S. will pretty much play itself, but in something like Human Fall Flat, it’s actually more challenging to get the hang of basic movements like running and jumping than it is in a regular game. If you don’t get good enough with the controls to climb and jump some of the things then you just get stuck in a frustrating cycle of flailing and falling and ending up back in the same sandbox, like a very tedious Groundhog Day time loop.

Another entry in the rag doll genre which combines some of the best of both worlds is Gang Beasts (Steam, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Windows, macOS, Linux, Oculus), a multiplayer beat ‘em up from UK indie studio Boneloaf. It’s a bit like a fighting version of Human Fall Flat with “surly gelatinous characters, brutal slapstick fight sequences, and absurd hazardous environments.” The characters wear animal suits, which is cute, and being able to play against other people who are all having the same experience of trying to fight with all the precision of rubber limbs and giant foam hands can be less frustrating than trying to jump a character with the consistency of overcooked spaghetti across a series of platforms. 

I think my recent feeling of kinship with rag dolls is also connected to Rita Farr/Elasti-Woman in Doom Patrol, who has the ability to stretch her body in fantastic ways but it can also cause her to turn into a boneless blob, which unfortunately happens to her involuntarily under emotional stress. There’s a scene in season 3 of the TV show when she needs to answer an emergency call and her arms keep melting and flopping to the floor every time she reaches for the phone. It’s an experience I recognize so well even though I have never turned into a blob, and it makes me think that maybe there’s something cathartic about being able to flail around and be incompetent in a game where there’s nothing important at stake and no expectation that you will ever be able to control when your arms turn to Jell-O. 

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If you enjoy old slapstick comedy, Alex MacFadyen highly recommends the hilarious stretcher scene in Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts’ short film Alum and Eve (1932) as well as the very entertaining Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

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