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October 26, 2011 / jwaxo

The Incredible Machine (Complexity)

Putting cats in baskets since 1993.

These posts are increasingly becoming less and less about specific stories and more about general ideas, but I guess I press on because I consider these arcing concepts pivotal to the overall theme of the blog. Sure, sometimes I learn basic grammar through playing games, and sometimes I gain entire personality quirks. Thus is life.

Let’s start at the end of this specific story and work back. The year is 2006, well past what I consider the cutoff date for “timeframes I can choose games and events to talk about” in this blog, but it works because it’s the end result of what I learned about from today’s subject. I’m a senior in high school and competing in a 3D animation contest with my constant Partner in Crime. This is the third time we’ve competed in the contest, in which you’re given all of the software necessary to model and animate a three-dimensional short, a prompt, and seven hours in which to make it happen. We’d gotten first place (out of maybe seven competing animators) the previous year, so pressure was pretty high to do just as well this time.

This year our person focus was on the physics of our chosen software. Instead of animating, by hand, bricks falling apart when a cannonball goes through them, we had learned some very simple ways to have all of the bricks automatically fall apart when force was put on them. To practice a number of ways to use the physics system, I had proposed early that we set up a number of virtual Rube Goldberg devices, and Partner in Crime and I had constructed maybe five machines that used the physics engine to generally great extent. Our teacher and mentor was somewhat exasperated by our ability to focus on such a strange means of education, but let us have our fun as long as we worked on other modeling techniques: lighting, sculpting, camerawork, etc.

The prompt was laid before us. Using no less than five steps, with the ultimate goal to turn on a light, we were to construct a Rube Goldberg machine.

Our teacher’s gaze through the observation window was priceless.

We didn’t use five steps. We used nine. Not because we were showing off, but because: who wants to build a Rube Goldberg machine that uses less? We took home the gold medal that year, taking excellent advantage of the physics, of course. And I thanked my love of The Incredible Machine for it.

What was the Incredible Machine (he asked the audience that was going to read on, anyway)?  It was a Rube Goldberg-creating game. A “think outside the box” puzzle. An educational tool to understand physics and taking steps to find a solution. And all of these things.

With a variety of tools, toys, platforms, and pets, the player can construct a wide field of interacting gadgets and do-dads, with whatever ultimate goal they want. The classic Rube Goldberg goals were there: turn on a light, scare the cat, set off the rocket. The built-in puzzles, in which you were given a half-built machine and told to figure out how to finish it, sometimes went for more abstract or strange goals, and got to the near-impossible point at the end of the game.

Only one computer in my elementary school had the game installed on it. The computer in the library was that computer, and you could guarantee that some lucky kid was always on that computer, lining up alligators to bump a ball off of their snouts or a few ramps for a rocket to slide down. I think that I maybe got a single chance to play on that library computer in my entire grade school career, but it was entrancing.

“You done yet? Come on, it’s my turn!”

When we finally got our own copy of the game, my brother and I took turns devising the longest and most insane machines. They normally ended with Mel, the tiny man who walked when he was bumped and fell when he reached a cliff, being eaten by a giant cat or walking into the aforementioned gators, but up until then the entire machine was fair game. There were conveyor belts and engines to spin them and lasers to power the engines and balloons to turn on the lasers and balls to push the balloons and pipes to roll the balls through.

Like dominoes paths and Army Men layouts and Hot Wheels tracks, the fun wasn’t in having the final product, but in the careful construction and tested physics. Hours would be taken squeezing every tiny square pixel for its maximum area. Glass boxes and candles and magnifying glasses, all painstakingly placed to accomplish some task that could have been completed with two clicks in the first place. The complexity, and the creation of the complexity, was what made it fun.

Once a machine was done, there was nothing to do but watch it through once, save it for a rainy-day viewing, and get started on the next one. Which maybe translates a little too well to my own propensity to start up a project, admire the planned complexities and intricacies, then leave it for dead a few weeks later.

But I digress: the main point is that The Incredible Machine taught me that there is beauty in complexity, even unnecessary complexity. Why do you think people love Inception, after all?

Besides the sheer joy of this sound.

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