Codex Bash

Codex Bash in playYesterday saw a spectacular evening of play hosted by the Wellcome Collection, practically opposite Euston station in London. The games were excellent, the company even better still. One interesting game, Goggle, presented by Ivan Gonzalez, might be considered a cross between tag rugby and capoiera from the perspective of someone who has played neither. (Retrieve tags from your three competitors’ belts, but you must all glide gracefully about the play area to the regular, slow beat of a drum. Special difficulty: you’re all wearing the titular goggles which restrict your vision.) The sessions about game poems – games designed to be thought about rather than played – were also delightfully provocative.

However, likely to be the most relevant game to readers was Codex Bash by Alistair Aitcheson. It’s as close as this site has seen to an arcade game version of an exit game, and this site hopes that the world at large gets to play it. For instance, an exit game facility with a bar or a cafe might choose to install the game and feature it as an attraction to be enjoyed by patrons of the bar, either as a warm-up before they went in to play their exit game, or as a fun cool-down afterwards. (Or just as a standalone.) It wouldn’t be far from something that could be incorporated into an exit game, though it would take a certain sort of game to appreciate it, or it could be an attraction by itself at a site.

Codex Bash sees teams of arbitrary size decode messages by following instructions and hitting sequences of oversized coloured buttons against the clock – big chunky Bishi Bashi Special buttons, practically game show buzzers. So far, so Simon without the memory, or Pop’n Music without the rhythm. However, the buttons are some distance apart from each other, so the game must either be played by either a team working in co-operation, or a single player running from button to button.

Codex Bash at its simplestThe real twist is that only the first level has direct instructions as to which button to push. Later levels do not present the instructions directly, but require the team to decode an instruction to work out which button to, from an on-screen excerpt of the titular codex.

These start simple; here’s a symbol, and here’s a chart as to which symbol means which button. They get more complicated and more interesting; here’s a little maze to follow, or here’s a grid to read, or here are some cartoon faces on coloured backgrounds, here are some facial features, find them on one of the faces and push the appropriate button. Later levels still might need you to follow multi-part sequences of symbolic relationships, or press two buttons at once (tricky for solo players) or – most interestingly – use decoding information that isn’t given on-screen but is given on physical objects elsewhere in the room that you have to find.

Some parts of the codex are found elsewhereThe number of ways to dress the encryption up, or otherwise play with the rules and conventions of the game itself, are practically endless – and there’s replay value because different games will use different techniques. There could even be different difficulty levels using the same physical equipment; easy mode might be forgiving of mistakes while emphasising the time limit – particularly as this could well be played by bright kids, too young for most exit games – whereas hard mode might get very quickly to the tough stuff and change the focus somewhat from “be fast” to “be accurate”.

The structure of the game as it was played last night was that teams had eight levels to complete, with an overarching time limit of four minutes, but a delightful Out Run-style time extension of 45 seconds after each level. Each level used a different encryption technique and required three sequences (of perhaps five or six button bashes) to be decoded through that technique. Running out of time would end the game; making five mistakes within a single level would do so as well. For what it’s worth, my team lost our game, but we got to the last level!

The presentation, graphics and sound are tremendously appropriate and fun; 80% cartoon-y, 20% game show-y. Maintaining it would require a few hardware skills, maybe electronics skills unless the big button and networking components are available off-the-shelf, but very light by exit game standards. The game as displayed required minimal manual intervention to start the game, but it seems likely that it wouldn’t take much development to turn it into a coin-op. The trailer will give you the feel of a slightly earlier version.

The Codex Bash hardware: just add a big, big screenIt’s a game that tickled some of the same parts of the brain as an exit game might; the frantic activity against time, the co-operation, the simple decoding, the variety, the use of the environment. Of course, there are so many other important areas that it didn’t even try to reach – narrative, plot progression, properly thoughtful, multi-part puzzles – and at the end of the day it’s a game which only empowers the player with one verb, push a button, so it’s inherently limited. The description “arcade game version of an exit game” fits it well, and that’s a delightful additional genre of game to exist in the world.

Author Alistair Aitcheson (incidentally, apparently unaware of the exit game genre, despite inadvertently having come close to reinventing a version of it) has a number of other works as well, playing with traditional boundaries between physical games and video games, often using the physicality of humans operating tablets as the medium. He’s brilliant! Sign him up! Codex Bash is definitely the piece of his work with most obvious relevance to exit games to date, though.


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