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Why I love ragdoll physics

Totally Accurate Battle Simulator
(Image credit: Landfall)

My fondest gaming memory: half a dozen boys squeezed tight into a uni halls bedroom, gathered around a monitor watching two boxy men stumble and push each other over, in endless loops. We’re losing our minds, laughing so hard that we gather a crowd from the fl ats above and below. 

The game is Sumotori Dreams, a free .exe I’d downloaded off the internet on a whim. Imagine a Virtua Fighter game set outside a kebab shop – a face-off between two cubist combatants with incredibly poor control over their bodies, so that every movement risks sending them tumbling to the ground. These fighters, they get knocked down, but they get up again. Or at least, they try to. Just standing up is a challenge, and that’s before you factor in the slight curvature of the ring edge and the box man also trying to right himself a few inches away. It’s almost inevitable that the pair will collide, tumbling to the ground entangled in each other’s blocky limbs like lovers. 

That perfect half-hour was well over a decade ago now, but on its strength alone, Sumotori Dreams would probably still rank in my all-time top 100 games. It opened a door, one that led me to a world of slapstick games. I can’t be sure that Sumotori was the first, historically speaking, but that combination of ragdoll physics and unreliable controls spawned an entire genre, encompassing everything from QWOP to Surgeon Simulator, Gang Beasts to Overcooked. 

Human Fall Flat

(Image credit: Curve Digital)

As many googly-eyed warriors as my CPU will allow, all rushing to the centre of the battlefield to clash in thick clouds of primary-coloured flesh. The advance of technology is a beautiful thing, sometimes.

My current obsession is Totally Accurate Battle Simulator (TABS), a game I suspect would cause my teenage self’s eyes to widen like that one exceedingly horny wolf from the old Droopy cartoons. A disjointed wrestling match between two drunkenly-animated fighters? Yeah, that’s alright, I guess – but how about dozens of them. Hundreds of them. As many googly-eyed warriors as my CPU will allow, all rushing to the centre of the battlefield to clash in thick clouds of primary-coloured flesh. The advance of technology is a beautiful thing, sometimes. 

Of course, it doesn’t have to be a dedicated comedy game. In fact, you often get better laughs if it’s not. Any game that uses the Euphoria engine is a good candidate here. Crashing into a lamppost in GTA, launching your body over the handlebars or through the windscreen. A Stormtrooper desperately clinging to boxes as you pull them leg-first into the sky in The Force Unleashed. Anything involving horses in Red Dead Redemption 2. 

In these games, not every death or collision is a slapstick masterpiece. Which just means that, when they are, it takes you by surprise – always one of comedy’s sharpest weapons. You never quite know when a grenade is going to lodge someone in the rafters, or when a sleep dart will send your target flopping over a railing, a perfectly planned non-lethal playthrough ruined. Like a joke with a hoary set-up taking a sudden twist into surrealism, unpredictability is inherently funny – and game physics is inherently unpredictable, especially when you throw AI into the mix.

Totally Accurate Battle Simulator

(Image credit: Landfall)

So maybe that’s why, decades on, something so simple can still have me bellowing at the screen like some gouty, turkey-leg-clutching king. Maybe ragdoll physics works because it’s an acknowledgment of the fundamental random meaninglessness of the universe and, well, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you? 

Or maybe it’s because I can relate to the tumbling body. Clumsiness is my standard mode of being. (I write this with a pretty large bruise on my head, sustained while skipping back from a toilet intermission during Hamilton, getting over excited at one of the musical numbers, and smashing my skull into a door frame.) 

QWOP

(Image credit: Bennett Foddy)

But we’ve all had those moments where our legs go from under us, right? I think of the way GTA IV links this ragdoll loss of control with drunkenness – put a couple of shots inside Niko, and suddenly his greatest enemy isn’t the Faustin Mafi ya or police, it’s a long flight of stairs – and I can’t help but nod in recognition.

We’re all of us made of unreliable meat, and sometimes it’s fun to play that up. Games often give us total streamlined control over movement, and undercutting that exposes the ridiculousness of it. Maybe that’s what I’m really laughing at. Or maybe it’s just funny to watch people fall over, and it always will be, no matter how old I get.