Harmony in Paradise


Well it turns out I actually have a lot to say about Robot Unicorn Attack and thought that it’s better to actually write and publish it in chunks rather than what I usually do which is write huuuuuge and immense posts that I never finish so never publish.

The other night I was enjoying the therapeutic balm of RUA, enhanced by my lovely AmbX lights and Aurora Synesthesia and when my consciousness returned inbetween wishes I wondered about why RUA is so good.  There’s a definite er… synergy between the music and the game.  The music often ascends and is full of positive uplifting words.  There’s continuous motion for your character towards the right.  The two player controls are dashing, which moves you to the right on the screen, and jumping, which moves you up and to the right.

The play structure is such that being up and to the right is rewarding and uplifting.  Double-jumps are so weirdly satisfying in games, and in RUA the timing needed/allowed is perfect.  It enables you to match the speed and shape of the music.  Somehow, all this means that the game can flow and give you the feeling that you’re getting somewhere, that it will all be worth it in the end.  Then you crash.  It’s just below frustrating.  Then I realised what else gave me that feeling.  Burnout.

Much as I love RUA and will prescribe it to all and sundry, I also like the feeling of getting somewhere.  I mean, really getting something done.  Not real things for goodness sake, I mean things in games.  I’ve got loads of games that I need to finish, so playing RUA is wasting precious time.  It might seem like I’m getting somewhere, but I’ll never recover that document in Stalker or find the secrets of Rapture at this rate.  I’ve god stuff to do. Like collecting all the cars in Burnout Paradise..

I loved Burnout 3 on the PS2.  The slow motion and the crash mode were the best.  Over Xmaz, Burnout Paradise was less than a fiver on Steam.  My dad (yes I have one) gave me some money and so I’ve decided that he bought it for me.  Actually I’m not sure I told him that.  He also got me The Orange Box in the same sale by the way.  Cheers dad!  Chad!

Well I say that I need to collect all the cars.  I also need to crash through all the billboards and yellow barriers.  I also don’t really care about those things.  I felt I needed to finish Portal for that whole “deficit theory of gaming” thing.  I needed to get Half-Life 2 so that I could play fantastic indie mods.  Burnout Paradise was a frivolous purchase.  Just for fun.  Fun it certainly is.  It’s the same as RUA.  There’s a flying swooping feeling to the driving.  Crashes are beautiful.  The game is just this side of frustrating.  The openness of it means that you are encouraged to just do something else.  On top of that the cars that open up and the events that get ticked off provide an ongoing sense of achievement far beyond merely beating a previous score.  All this we know.

What occured to me though was the flying swooping feeling.  Paradise city is supposed to seem haphazard.  It’s an open world with no set racetracks.  It’s obvious though that the designers spent a great deal of time on constructing routes.  Unfinished bridges which line up with train tracks or whatever.  All of which enables you to soar.  I was surprised that there were so few musical tracks with the game.  There were loads in Burnout 3. Neither can you make custom playlists of your own music.  That seems a pity, I love DJ Atomica.  As it goes I just googled “Erasure Radio Station”, loaded up LastFM, set my AmbX, alt-tabbed to Burnout and there was harmony in Paradise.


One of the things that is great about Robot Unicorn Attack is that it’s one of those games that enables you to enter a trance like state. Your conscious grasp of what’s going on on screen is replaced with a holistic understanding of everything.  It’s beyond hand-eye coordination, the universe is no longer experiencing itself subjectively, there’s just an inevitable flow of happenings.  When you’re in the zone, time will disappear from your life.  Suddenly, it’s an hour later.  This is a common experience, and comment.  It’s also like Schopenhauer’s sublime. Your head pops out of dreary existence and into the world beyond will. You are off the wheel of desire and failed fulfilment. Ataraxia. Nirvana. Your cynical defences are down, your ego has disappeared, you are completely unaware of the rainbow joy you are mainlining. Then you crash into a wall.

The one-button-game Canabalt is so successful at causing this state that I was worried at first that the two buttons needed for Robot Unicorn Attack would be overcomplicated.  Then I realised.  Of course, Tetris has far more complicated controls, and that’s the king of the zentrance.  Learning arbitrary controls may require an initial conscious effort, but once they’re successfully mapped inside your head…

You are not pushing ‘z’ – you are jumping

… and once the zen kicks in… you are no longer jumping,  there simply is a jump

I saw this on the BBC from the Institute of Psychiatry at Oxford University.  Two groups of subjects were shown traumatic stuff on video. One group then sat quiely. The other group then played Tetris.  It seems that the 6 hours after seeing something are crucial for memory formation.  Apparently Tetris uses the same areas of the brain and so disrupts the laying down of the memory.  A week later the Tetris players had fewer flashbacks.

The beeb article goes off on one about the ethics of erasing mempries, which (OF COURSE) isn’t what the research is about.  It’s not about forgetting what happened.  It’s not even about never remembering it. It’s about lessening the impact of that memory.  Not overstrengthening it so that it’s all you ever remember ever again. This is about seeing something terrible and it not haunting you for the rest of your life.  In the original article[IAMAFOOTNOTE] (which is from Jan 7, 2009 so how this is still news I’m not sure hey-ho) they say that there’s been a lot of good work done on treating PTSD, but not much on preventing it. They talk about a “cognitive vaccine”, but since they are suggesting applying Tetris thirty minutes after the trauma it seems to me more like “cognitive first aid”.

I’d like to see what happens if they play Tetris before the trauma.  Would that make it worse? Would it be warming up your visual comprehension or wearing it out?  Does it only work for trauma?  If you watch a beautiful film that makes you feel wonderful, and then you play Tetris, does that mean you have fewer “positive” flashbacks?  I guess so, but I don’t think that Post-Elation-Happiness-Disorder is either recognised, or contraindicted.  Away from trauma, is this a danger for revision?  Is there really no effect on conscious recall?  If you’ve just watched a film, and then you play Tetris, will you not remember the film as well?  I mean, be careful.

What can we learn from all this?  If you’ve seen something bad on the internet, then just looking at a nice picture afterwards isn’t good enough. To firmly cock up that memory becoming all powerful you need to actively engage your brain, and apparently the zen-like-trance that you get into playing Tetris is good for that.

What I’m taking from this is that there is such a thing as a Unicorn Chaser, but you have to be active. Can you tell what it is yet?  The true brain bleach is:

Robot Unicorn Attack!!!

[IAMAFOOTNOTE] Holmes EA, James EL, Coode-Bate T, Deeprose C, 2009 Can Playing the Computer Game “Tetris” Reduce the Build-Up of Flashbacks for Trauma? A Proposal from Cognitive Science. PLoS ONE 4(1): e4153. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004153

I wonder if Robot Unicorn Attack is one of those internet phenomenado-dooo-do-doo-doo that has actually only just started. I mean it’s finally been on BoingyBoingy and everything. I always think I’m late to the party, but hey maybe not.

The comments have several people asking for the name of the song, and several right answers. Yeah, several times people ask and answer the same question, on the same thread. You know this whole generation of kids who’ve grown up with the net and yeah they’ll “get” it in a way that we old people never could yeah? It’s like in their DNA, they *are* the net generation? Yeah? How come they can’t fucking google? I mean, Yahoo! Answers is full of stupid questions that people could have got the answers for far quicker by using, ooh I dunno… Yahoo! As for the people who actually post “answers” which say “i dun no! lol” oooh… grrrr. GRRRR. (Yes you old git, it’s because the social interaction and validation is more important than finding out the actual answer in the most efficient way. They ask for directions because they want to talk to someone, not because they can’t read a map. Although they can’t.)

How can such grumpy stress be defused?
[ plays RUA… ]

Obviously this post could be the kiss of death to the idea but hey, maybe off the back of this Erasure will have a small hit, and be on talk shows explaining that it all comes back to Robot Unicorn Attack. Of course these days you don’t need to re-release the single. It’s there on Amazon for 89p or itunes or whatever. I await the “Let’s get Erasure Always 2009 remix to number 1!!!” FaceBook group. Although Vince might consider renaming it “Robot Unicorn Attack Song” if he really wants to storm the charts…