When I first saw screenshots of American Battle Dome, I thought it to be a minor Warlords variant whose own history begins and ends with its release. Researching and playing the game proved otherwise. Far from being a stand-alone title, the game is just one instance of a larger brand of Battle Dome toys. And rather than use an 80s arcade game as the foundation for its own design, American Battle Dome is better described as a competitive pinball game. Four players share the same table and simultaneously compete for the highest score. The exact method varies from table to table, but generally it always involves launching a flurry of balls across the table in the hopes that it hits a score-giving object (monsters, UFOs, fairies, etc.).
In other words, American Battle Dome is just one instance of the larger game of pinball. This imposes certain limitations on how we can approach the game critically. Any commentary we render can only apply to the game insofar as it applies to the larger family of games it belongs to. Yet if pinball limits our ability to comment on American Battle Dome, then the latter expands our understanding of the former by creating opportunities that might not exist otherwise. After all, video games can easily do things that would be very difficult for physical pinball to replicate, something this game is quick to take advantage of. American Battle Dome is replete with imaginative expansions on how pinball works, and although it wasn’t the game’s intention, those expansions illuminate several histories/aspects of pinball as a whole.
The first aspect I want to cover is pinball as the unfolding of spectacle. This is an interesting way to interpret pinball because it moves us away from looking at pinball purely as a game. That logic requires that the player be productive in some way (even if it’s only getting a higher score) and thus emphasizes a level of control and skill that would allow players to achieve that level of productivity. The unfolding of spectacle rejects that logic. It relishes in turning pinball into an unproductive experience. Chaos reigns, but in this chaos we see countless novel aspects of the game unfold before us: a visually interesting path the ball might carve, some event that demands our attention. Our role isn’t to gain an advantage through or over all of this spectacle, but to simply study it, gaining knowledge that has no value beyond what we immediately experience.
Viewed in this light American Battle Dome is fairly straightforward. It doesn’t question the fundamental logic established above, but it does apply that logic along a different axis. Rather than create spectacle through discrete events, the game creates it spatially. Each table has its own interpretation of gravity: sometimes at the corners, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes a more intuitive straight line along the bottom. These forms of gravity may feel natural in a 3D setting, but their presentation through a doubly flat image – the SNES’s 2D display and the flat image of a television screen – results in their feeling unintuitive in this context. In opening a rift between its physics and its presentation/our perception of them, American Battle Dome undermines its simulationist aspects by pointing to their necessary limits.
However, it also creates new opportunities for spectacle within that rift; opportunities that wouldn’t exist were the game to adopt a purely visual strategy. How else would I slowly build up a tactile feel for a table’s terrain, as I do on the Heaven table? Or feel the contrast between the visual and spatial layouts, as on the oddly hilly Moon Space table? In short, the interplay between perspective, spatiality, and physics allows for all sorts of conceptually interesting tricks, leading to a game where half the player’s investment is in figuring out how each table is supposed to function.
Or at least that’s how I want to interpret the game. Truth be told, American Battle Dome’s modifications to pinball hinder its interpretations of the game as much as they facilitate those interpretations. This is already apparent in the table layouts: they can be too chaotic, too disorienting for me to appreciate the game aesthetically. That being said, the concept itself remains sound, and I can imagine more easily appreciating American Battle Dome under different conditions. This suggests that table layouts alone are insufficient for explaining the game’s shortcomings.
The same can be said regarding the simultaneous multiplayer aspect of the game, even if examining it brings us closer to understanding what those shortcomings may be. To provide a brief explanation of what I mean by simultaneous multiplayer, it’s essentially four players playing their own individual pinball games at once on overlapping tables. It’s what defines the Battle Dome toy/game that American Battle Dome is based on, but it would be reductive to assume the only reason the game was designed this way was to align itself with the Battle Dome brand. Why was the brand designed that way at all? How does that design affect play? In theory, four players sharing the same board should give the game a Mario Party-esque quality. Our collective lack of control creates unprecedented and novel scenarios, affording the game more (unique) opportunities to celebrate the pell-mell spectacle that pinball is known for.
Yet even on its own terms, this logic is specious. If spectacle really is American Battle Dome’s ultimate end, then why would it motivate us to reach that end through something like scores, much less highly individualized scores? Furthermore, if I’m meant to share my fun with the other players, then American Battle Dome has precluded such fun from the start. Its play prevents me from perceiving myself as part of a group, instead using the possibility of unequal gains to pit me against my fellow players.
The consequences that entail from these design choices are multitudinous. On the one hand, play is characterized by disorientation, confusion, and ultimately disappointment with myself. I can no longer find the aesthetic joy in balls flying all across the board or events triggering at random, as I’m directing all my focus to desperately maintaining what little control I have over my own affairs. On a conscious level I know that the game’s meritocratic trappings are all a myth lacking any substance – that advantages gained early on decide later success, that I can never intentionally act on the opportunities the game constantly presents me – but the belief that I should have some control persists on an emotional level. What were once aesthetics signs crafted for my appreciation now serve as reminders of my own inability to play the game properly.
The effect is only magnified when I look at the other players’ tables and see them handling their games with far less trouble than me. But something else happens: I grow envious, spiteful of the other players’ successes. Even knowing the random nature of how the game plays, I still feel like everybody else has some unseen advantage over me. Maybe the game is launching balls their way more frequently, or maybe it’s giving them more opportunities to score. Perhaps they know some secret about when to launch the ball so they can score off my table in a way I can’t. Whatever the case, my feelings are never directed toward the game that causes these inequalities, but toward those parties that reap their benefits. Were we to end our commentary here, we’d say that American Battle Dome creates unnecessary problems for itself as it distracts its players from the problems’ root causes – because it distracts from those root causes.
However, I see a more fundamental transformation at play in the game’s implementation of simultaneous multiplayer; one that indicates a lack of confidence on the game’s part. At the heart of the shift from spectacle is the belief that, if the game isn’t already in our control, that it at least should be in our control. Yet this belief arouses certain questions for the game to answer. What is that control aimed toward? What makes that control desirable, or even necessary? There are likely multiple ways to answer these questions, but the answer American Battle Dome chooses should be familiar to anybody with passing knowledge of video game culture. It appeals to ideas like skill and conquest: beat your friends, get the highest score, become the greatest Battle Dome player in all the land. (The story mode especially builds off this last point.)
Putting aside the previously discussed untenability of these goals, it’s not entirely clear why American Battle Dome feels the need to so heavily contradict its own spirit. What does it stand to gain through this new perspective that it couldn’t gain through the old? Spectacle and an anti-productive stance put the game in contact with a significance that needs no further justification. Were we to commit ourselves to the ideas it introduces now, that significance would be forever lost to us. The enjoyment one feels in the moment can never be allowed to stand on its own. Expressed through numbers, that enjoyment must be made to have value, and the player who feels it made to be productive. They, like the character they control, become an engine of pure economic activity: performing hollow work for diminishing returns on something they could more easily attain outside the system they’ve dedicated themselves to.
Throughout much of the 20th century, pinball was considered a dangerous form of gambling because players couldn’t control the outcomes of the game. Although these criticisms were more the result of historical/cultural circumstances than they were anything inherent in pinball’s design, there is a shred of truth in them. More often than not trying to assign a discrete value to play ends up having a destructive effect on the self that seeks that value through play. I don’t mean this as a call to immediately abandon design approaches like those that American Battle Dome epitomizes. The problems at hand are highly situational and require tact in handling. What is certain is this: the process of sorting out those problems must begin by seriously interrogating what it is we seek through play and what answers, if any, a given school of design is structured to lead us toward.