“Penises are funny,” are the first words that come out of Richard Pieterse’s mouth at the start of our chat about his new pet project, Wang Commander. “I like making games that make people laugh and break ice and have a good time in social situations.”
Wang Commander is bordering on a social experiment rather than a game. Obviously there’s a game here to play, but part of what’s causing all the buzz about this indie title at rAge 2013 are the reactions from those who are playing it. I’ve been wondering around the show floor for two days now, and the buzz around Wang Commander is definitely there. Many people who have found themselves on the home_coded Learn3D.co.za and MakeGamesSA indie stand have been overheard saying, “Did you play that Wang Commander game?”
Richard’s game certainly has some shock-tactics in there, but it’s an intelligent game that’s been made for a laugh. And laughing is definitely part of the experience; I played a four-player match with three complete strangers (two of them women) and our laughter and cheering was loud enough to drown out the Telkom booth’s PA system.
“I don’t know why I made it,” Richard tells me when I ask him where the idea came from. “I don’t know where the idea came from. I think one day I was just messing around with rigid bodies in Unity and I thought, ‘Hey, I wonder if I can make a penis out of these’, which I did, and it was pretty funny, so I made more. And then the game happened.”
There are no clear goals for the game at this point in time. Richard’s been working on Wang Commander for about two months now, and he prototyped the game in a weekend. “I don’t want to over think it,” he tells me. On a whim, he put it up for people to play during the recent A MAZE Festival in Johannesburg – he was there promoting a completely different game called Escape Velocity. The reactions from those who played the game made him realise that Wang Commander just might be something more than a spare time project.
When I ask him what it feels like to see the reactions from people playing the game at rAge, Richard becomes visibly excited and perhaps a little overwhelmed by the deluge of positive feedback he’s received. “It’s so amazing. It makes me so happy when I see that. That’s the best thing a games developer could want.”
Obviously the game has raised some interesting questions about the industry in general, and about the family friendly ethos of the rAge Expo. “Most of the AAA games engage with sex and violence quite a lot. So it’s interesting where you draw the line of what’s appropriate for kids,” Richard says. “Some people would argue that letting kids play games like Call of Duty is ok but letting them see something like this is bad. Wang Commander is in a lot of ways a game about openness of sexuality and making it not such a big deal. It breaks down discomfort about ideas of sex – especially homosexuality and things like that.”
Wang Commander is simple: up to eight players can play a local game, with two people playing per controller. Each player controls a floppy penis as it rolls around a level. You direct the penis with an analogue stick, and hit one of the bumpers to make your penis, umm, erect. If you position your penis in a specific way before going erect, you’ll launch it off the ground/wall/ceiling. I think those previous two sentences just may be the weirdest sentences I’ve ever written about a game. Navigation is tricky, but that’s part of the humour: seeing eight fluorescent coloured penises flopping around a level and falling over each other has the ability to push group hysteria to nuclear levels. The object of the game is to hit a ball into some goals; it’s a team-based game, so naturally there’s lots of screaming and shouting and jostling of shared controllers.
Forcing players to share controllers is part of the experience and social experiment. A controller has always been an individual thing; something that one person uses to interact with a game world. Now two people are forced to share one, and they’re using it to control penises. To that extent Richard likens Wang Commander to Fingle – the iPad game made for two players that forces suggestive finger movements in order to complete levels.
“I’ve always had a bit of a penis fixation. It’s immature, but I like making penis jokes,” Richard laughs. “I like making jokes that make people uncomfortable and push taboos. The game wasn’t made with any highbrow intentions, but from watching people play it I think it’s quite interesting in that it pushes taboos in games and game development.”
At the moment, the game is playable online via the Deciduous Games blog. Anything beyond an online offering is still up for debate. “I haven’t got anything serious planned for it. People are suggesting that I put it on Greenlight, but it’s just an idea. I’m a full time developer at Free Lives; we make Broforce, so that’s where I spend nine hours a day. Wang Commander is just a passion project on the side. I don’t have any immediate goals for it. I want to make it so that I can give it someone and they can just pass it around. There are no commercial goals for it.”
There are, however, some plans to add further features. Richard has the crazy idea that adding lightsabers might be fun. There’s certainly no way the game could become more bizarre, so allowing the penises to emit lightsaber blades to chop opponents up might just add another layer of insanity.
Wang Commander is a strange game, but it is undeniably good fun. I loved the uncomfortable feelings it elicited in me as I was forced to share a controller with a stranger. It’s a subversive game, but since when were indie games supposed to follow a formula?