Monthly Archives: April 2015

April 27, 2015

Teenagent (1995)

Teenagent-cover Teenagent-UScover
developed by Metropolis Software House (Warsaw, Poland)
first published by Metropolis Software House, February 26, 1995, for DOS, 49 zł (= $20 (1995 rate))
first published in the US as “shareware” by Union Logic Software Publishing, April (?) 1995, for DOS, $29.95
GOG package ~25MB. Actual game ~15MB.

Played to completion in 3 hours, 4/25/15–4/26/15.

[video: 2-hour complete playthrough]

Still working through the GOG free-for-all. This one was added to GOG on April 1, 2009 as the 100th game in their catalog.

Though it isn’t at all obvious from their friendly English-language website, GOG is actually based in Warsaw. It is a subsidiary of an older Polish company called CD Projekt. In 2007, CD Projekt had bought and absorbed Metropolis, the developers of Teenagent. Metropolis had declared Teenagent freeware way back in 1999; it only took four years for the company to feel they’d advanced so far beyond it that selling it actually detracted from their reputation. So basically: the parent company of GOG had this extremely silly game in their pocket, of sentimental value to Poles generally and to its developers specifically (some of whom are still on staff), so they decided to make it their 100th game as some kind of April Fools’ goof, or at least half-goof.

Going in, I knew this was going to be a clumsy old third-rate Polish adventure game, resurrected as a nostalgic indulgence for the Warsaw office that grew up with it. Even if you haven’t watched any of the gameplay video, just the box images above should give a sense of the production quality: verging on the homemade. So it was to my surprise that I found myself genuinely charmed and amused.

There were tons of intensely clonky amateur adventure games being passed around in the 90s, made by teenagers who, like me, were totally enraptured by the LucasArts games, and then, unlike me, felt compelled to try their hand at the craft. Generally those games were riddled with compulsive references and quotes from Monkey Island or Zak McKracken or the like. The real LucasArts games already had an offhand, self-deflating manner that frequently descended to frame-breaking “in-jokes.” So fans who were eagerly following in their footsteps felt all the more encouraged to indulge their impulses toward geeky mimicry and allusion; it was already a part of the style. Unfortunately it also made most of those games basically unbearable. Well-made adventure games appeal to the 12-year-old boy in me, but the creations of other 12-year-old boys don’t.

(It always seemed dumb to me when things like Stone Soup magazine implied that kids really want to read the writings of other kids. Trust me, they don’t; they want to read things that are good. So much stuff is directed at kids with this clueless and insincere message of “empowerment” based around the premise that kidhood is a political identity like race or religion, and that kids inherently want to band together laterally and form a community of mutual respect. Pshaw!)

Teenagent has very much the naive look and feel of those games. It initially seems like something made by 12-year-olds. But it quickly becomes clear that if so, they’re the very best kind of 12-year-olds, the kind who pounce on any opportunity for silliness and never settle for mere good form. In the game, you get a feather from a chicken. When you examine it in your inventory, the game says “It’s kicking ass.”

I feel like that about sums it up.

Because the game was not made by actual American 12-year-olds, whose attention would falter at some point and leave gaping holes, but rather by totally goofy Polish programmers who were capable of following through, there’s actually a completely functional game here, surprisingly generous of graphics, animation, and dialogue. For complete artlessness it’s fairly skilled. So it’s sort of the ideal 12-year-old’s game, something that could only be made by adult (well, at least college-age) Europeans. Europe has less of a stigma against childlike silliness. It’s kicking ass.

Okay, but the game is not in fact ideal. I wish I could say that it’s a folk-art delight through and through but it’s not; it’s got actual problems. First of all, it has super-dopey music that, though amusing at first, unfortunately exists only in very very short loops, which repeat incessantly. After 45 minutes of a particular 30-second inanity, there’s no longer any way of construing it as naive charm: it’s undeniably a flaw.

More importantly, I can’t recommend anyone sit down and play it through because it’s not fair enough. I had to cheat eleven different times, which I think is a record for me and adventure games. The logic is absolutely ludicrous, which is all in good fun (and par for the course), but there aren’t nearly enough hints built into the game to nudge the player toward the correct nonsense and away from the incorrect. There are lots of actions that if you attempt them, you just get a generic “That doesn’t work” type response, when you ought properly to get a “Good idea, but I think I need something a little smaller” type response that would help guide you where you need to go. When your inventory fills up with 20 objects and there are 17 different rooms available full of stuff to “use” them all on, trial and error is not a viable way of proceeding, and yet players will inevitably have moments where they feel they have no other option. I had eleven such moments — well, actually, many more than eleven, because a lot of the time my trial and error paid off. The eleven cheats came when even my attempts to exhaust all likely possibilities came to nil.

If you gave me just the game text to revise, without adding any new animations or interactions, I think I could make it much more fair, by adding lots of little nudges to narrow the options. I could also fix various infelicities in the Polish-written English (“All I care about is the respect of the science society respect.”), although I must say I was impressed by how few there were, and how idiomatic a lot of their goofiness had been made to sound. Even the pun of the title (get it?) suggests an impressive fluency. Sort of.

I counted roughly 100 actions in this 3-hour game. That comes out to better than one every two minutes, which is so markedly different a pace from the four-minute trudges of the prior two games that it feels almost like a different species. It reminded me a little of those French Gobliiins games, which packed the maximum number of silly puzzly interactions into each area. In such a game, the sense of flow becomes quite different: most of the gameplay overtly takes place in completely frozen narrative time, like song-time in a musical, whereas in the American games (and the UK games I’ve just played) there is more of an attempt to keep alive the strained impression that every puzzle relates directly to the narrative and that the narrative is always in motion, even though it has to slow to a crawl while you deal with the details. I find the European style more conducive to daydream-y play, but the impression they make is also more frivolous.

Of course “frivolous” doesn’t even begin to describe what goes on here.

The second part of the game is all about trying to get into the mansion of the villain; you have to attempt to get in five different ways, one of which is to sneak in through a secret tunnel, the entrance to which is a trap door.

The trap door is in a clearing in the forest, under a beehive surrounded by bees. You refuse to go near enough to open it while the bees are there. The solution is to throw a dart at the beehive, which pierces it and lets some honey drip out, instantly attracting a bear from offscreen, who lumbers on and then quickly exits pursued by the bees, clearing them from the scene. There is no actual dart in the game: you create a makeshift one by sticking a needle in the front of a pinecone and a feather in the back. The needle you find by searching a haystack. The feather you get by kicking a chicken. The pinecone is initially seen stuck to the back of a hedgehog, from whence you refuse to simply pick it up, because you don’t want to poke yourself on the quills. The way you get it is by bringing the hedgehog a fake plastic apple and telling it you’ll exchange the apple for the pinecone; the hedgehog accepts this deal and turns over the pinecone, then storms off in dismay when he finds the apple is fake. You get this plastic apple from a bowl of imitation fruit in an old lady’s living room. She won’t let you take it without listening to a tedious story, which you refuse to do; the only way to get it is to surreptitiously swap it, so quickly that she doesn’t notice, replacing it with a “large nut.” The nut is initially found on a high branch of a tree, out of reach, but next to a squirrel. If you talk to the squirrel and ask it for the nut, it refuses. However, if you talk to it four times in a row, eventually you anger it so thoroughly that it hurls the nut at you… but it falls into some grass, in which it can’t be located by hand. To retrieve the nut from the grass you have to rake it out. Unfortunately when you first find the rake, it’s old and damaged and its remaining teeth are too far apart to be effective. To restore it to usability, you have to bind the teeth closer to one another with a ribbon. The old lady’s pretty granddaughter gives you the ribbon, to remember her by, as thanks for having given her a heart-shaped chocolate in foil. The foil wrapper is found loose on the ground and you must apply it to the chocolate yourself. Furthermore, the chocolate, which is given to you by the guard in front of the mansion as consolation for your not being allowed entrance, is initially round rather than heart-shaped. You must bring it to a cabinet with heart-shaped holes, and push it through one of the holes, which trims it.

That’s how you get in the trap door.

If you are chuckling and shaking your head at such a cavalcade of stupidity, you are in fact enjoying the game as it was intended to be enjoyed. Maybe you’d like it after all.

Credits. The leads here are still in the industry and making prominent games.

Adrian Chmielarz: programming, “ideas”
Grzegorz Miechowski: animation, “ideas”
Andrzej Sawicki: “ideas”
Tomasz Pilik: additional animation
Andrzej Dobrzynski: backgrounds
Radek Szamrej: music
Peter Wells: “translation help”

April 26, 2015

Leskov: Tales

Nikolai Leskov (1831–1895)
The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories (1865–1887)
(selected and) translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2013)


Roll 36:
990: Nikolai Leskov. Under which there is only a single entry:
991: Tales

The recent Vintage Classics edition happens to be the longest and most inclusive Leskov collection ever assembled. Upon learning that this was my next assignment, I strolled to a local bookstore and bought it.

Here’s my review:

The very slightly rough finish of the cover’s paper stock is a great tactile pleasure. It somehow perfectly complements the particular thickness and heft of the book, which is slightly denser than the average paperback. Furthermore, the edges of the spine have an excellent sturdy sharpness. The book is thoroughly satisfying to the touch. For the year that I spent inching my way through this volume’s 576 pages, I never stopped enjoying the sensation of holding it in my hand.

Naturally, it feels best when it’s closed.

It was hard to leverage the tactile pleasure into enthusiasm for the reading. Flopping the book open to reveal its rather thin, cheap pages and struggling to attend to its text always felt like a betrayal of my happy relationship with its sculptural qualities. Must I ruin everything for myself? Why couldn’t I just enjoy this rectangle for its excellent tactility? Why couldn’t I simply let it be the object it was born to be?

Well, because it was in fact born to be a book, and to be read. It isn’t my fault that the outside isn’t spiritually of a piece with the inside. That’s squarely on the heads of the publisher and star cover designer Peter Mendelsund. The attractive cover is a lie, and a deliberate one. Albeit perhaps only subconsciously.

What can I possibly mean by a “subconsciously deliberate” lie? I mean the lie of design as a whole, so I guess the time has come to release some of my long-deferred ranting about design.

What makes a designer tick is the thrill of converting what is into what is splendid. This purports to be cultural altruism, as though designers were the civic beautification committee, serving the populace, making the world a more hospitable place. But usually the only thing they’re really serving is an addiction to splendidness, and their only compass is whether they’ve gotten their fix.

Designers pride themselves on their ability to parse everything into a fashionable form. To them, this feels innocent: “it’s only interpretation,” they think, “not interference.” The thing-itself after all remains pure; they’re simply housing it, and with their finest craftsmanship: what could be more respectful? A conscientious cover designer goes in search of a thing that he thinks is more honorable than mere marketing: a real perspective, a legitimate standpoint from which the material can be flattened into something modish and sleek.

But rather than being more honorable, this is actually far more insidious than mere marketing, because interpretation is interference. Parsing is in fact the most intrusive possible act, since it impinges not on the work (which, yes, is durable), but on the reader. The designer who selects a “point of view” and asserts it with graphic force is stealing the reader’s freedom. That this point of view is usually chosen solely for its potential to accommodate the designer’s compulsion for splendidness, to rationalize that same old obsessive modishness and sleekness, only adds insult to the injury.

And it is a real injury, because a cover cannot be denied. It is psychologically impossible to simply disregard a cover. A book is like any other inanimate object: it is its appearance.

I have no reservations about saying that covers have always had a tremendous impact on my experiences of reading, comparable to the impact that the music on the radio has on my experiences of car trips. For a time in my life I was driven by embarrassment to delude myself that covers were “just covers,” but in truth, the outward appearance of a book has always been at the emotional root of every reading experience. Reading is a devotional process, and the book is the icon.

Peter Mendelsund has certainly done many eye-catching covers, but taken as a whole his work seems to me thoroughly overconceptualized, clever-clever, and not to be trusted, especially not with established works. I utterly hate his Joyce covers. Every time I see the new Ulysses on a bookstore shelf, it pains me to think that this is now the standard American edition, and that anyone who buys and reads it for the first time will be buying and reading The Peter Mendelsund Show, with its very specific and banal ideas flamboyantly interposed. I would be embarrassed to think of the ghost of James Joyce finding out about these designs, which seems to me a pretty good criterion for determining whether a cover is in good taste.

That Mendelsund has written a heavily-designed book about the act of reading just seems to me like a symptom of the reflexive self-attention that subsumes real feeling. This guy doesn’t just like reading, says the book, he knows reading, and wants to explain it to you. That mindset seems to me a liability for a visual artist.

His Leskov cover is a close relative to the Joyce covers. The “point of view” seems to be: Leskov’s stories are eccentric, human, meandering. They run insouciant rings around their own 19th-century mantle of dignity. The arrow of narrative (a fletched arrow with folktale connotations, subtly bringing out the romance of “enchanted” and “wanderer”) defies all expectation and asserts its own hand-drawn personality with deadpan magnetism. Formal inventiveness, wit and whimsy, in tensile balance with an underlying classical elegance. Surely herein is something intellectually stimulating, wry, clever, hearty, a bit mysterious, and above all timely and chic. Naturally. I mean just look at it; look at the colors, look at the post-modern winking! And it’s by star designer Peter Mendelsund!

From the publisher’s copy on the back: “…seventeen tales, some rooted in oral tradition, others cast as sophisticated anecdotes… Innovative in form and rich in wordplay, the narratives unfurl in startlingly modern ways.”

Now, these statements are all technically true (though only a few of the stories have wordplay, and “startlingly modern” is highly debatable)… but note that they are essentially analytical, academic types of claims, not claims about experiential value. “These are things that are true of the book.” But what is the book like? The marketing copy doesn’t venture to say.

The deliberate lie of the cover is that it relates exclusively to these conceptual claims about the work and not to the work itself. Mendelsund renders these analytic observations into a slick aesthetic presentation, with a generic “cultured bibliophile” flavor, deriving nothing from the flavor of reading the actual stories. The cover, like so many covers, is actually selling the cocktail conversation about Leskov, not Leskov himself.

Having cracked the lovely shell, opened the book and read it, I now know there was a reason for this! Leskov’s work is very much from long ago and far away. But being literate enough to know and talk about Leskov is timeless. Naturally they’re going to pitch the latter over the former. Here’s the one critical blurb on the front cover of the paperback, from the San Francisco Chronicle: “Outstanding… A worthy monument to add to your bookshelf of prized Russian literature.”

Exactly! Just think of it, on your bookshelf! Just think how it will look, being there, possessed and mastered by you. Just think how you will prize it! A worthy monument indeed.

I however alternated prizing it, as described above, with reading it, as described below.

This is the first Pevear and Volokhonsky joint I’ve visited, and I’m sorely disappointed. For the past 15 years, Barnes & Noble & Friends have been telling me in no uncertain terms that P+V are a superstar dream team who have valiantly reclaimed Russian literature from fusty old Constance “Public Domain” Garnett and given it back its vigor, its precision, its spice, its bite. “Not your grandma’s Dosteyevsky!” It never occurred to me to be cynical until now.

The translators’ note begins: “Leskov is notoriously difficult to translate.” It then lays out P&V’s approach to the problem with allusion to a quote by Jacques Maritain:

“The first duty of a translator … is always to respect the word itself that the author has used … and to seek its exact equivalent.” [Maritain] was not advocating a slavish literalism; he was defending the full meaning, meaning also the way of meaning, of the original.

I don’t want to get too deeply into the philosophy of translation, but the above seems like a terrible, gaping fallacy. Aspiring to convey “the full meaning, meaning also the way of meaning” is a vague and lovely ideal that bears no necessary relationship to the much more dubious ideal of seeking “exact equivalents” to individual words. By implying that these two attitudes are intuitively linked, P&V reveal the very bias they are trying to reassure us against.

But you don’t have to take my word for it! Let’s read some Leskov. This excerpt comes from early on in the very long title story, The Enchanted Wanderer (or Очарованный странник, if you insist). The story is a picaresque narrated by, and very much in the voice of, its supremely earthy protagonist. He is among other things a master of horses; here he is setting the stage for recounting a carriage accident:

У него дышловики были сильные и опористые: могли так спускать, что просто хвостом на землю садились, но один из них, подлец, с астрономией был — как только его сильно потянешь, он сейчас голову кверху дерет и прах его знает куда на небо созерцает. Эти астрономы в корню — нет их хуже, а особенно в дышле они самые опасные, за конем с такою повадкою форейтор завсегда смотри, потому что астроном сам не зрит, как тычет ногами, и невесть куда попадает.

David Magarshack (1961, available from Modern Library):

My father’s shaft horses were strong and very reliable when it came to getting a firm foothold on the road: they had a way of taking the carriage down by just sitting on their tails in the roadway. One of them, however, was a real villain of a horse with a predilection for astronomy: it was enough for his reins to be pulled in with some force for him to throw up his head at once, and confound his eyes if he wouldn’t start scanning the skies! These astronomers are truly the worst kind of horses you can get, and especially between the shafts they are a real danger! An outrider must be constantly on his guard against a horse with such a habit, for an astronomer, of course, does not look where he’s putting his feet down and he usually gets himself and everybody else in a terrible mess.

Ian Dreiblatt (2012, Melville House):

[My father’s] shaft horses were strong and reliable; they had a way of easing the cart down an incline by sitting on their tails in the middle of the road. But one of them was a real blackguard, disposed to astronomy: just rein him in for a minute and he’d throw his head back, and, well bless his soul, cast his gaze to the heavens like he was scanning the stars! These astronomers! Basically, there’s nothing worse, and especially between the drawbars, that’s where they’re most dangerous. An outrider’s got to keep a close eye on an astronomer horse: on their own they can barely put one foot in front of the other, and they’re always causing all kinds of problems.

And finally, Pevear and Volokhonsky (2013):

[My father’s] shaft horses were strong and reliable: they could make the descent simply by sitting on their tails, but one of them, the scoundrel, was into astronomy — you only have to rein him in hard, and straightaway he throws his head up and starts contemplating deuce knows what in the sky. There’s no worse harness horses than these astronomers — and they’re most dangerous especially between the shafts, a postillion always has to watch out for horses with that habit, because an astronomer doesn’t see where he puts his feet, and who knows where they’ll land.

This excerpt should make apparent why Leskov is so difficult to translate. The voice and spirit of the tale-teller are absolutely of the essence — they are, in fact, the whole reason for the story — but those things are inextricably caught up in nuances of idiom and dialect that can have no exact equivalents in other languages.

The soul of this particular excerpt is not so much in the joke itself (of calling a horse who looks upward an “astronomer”) as in the author’s observation of such a joke in its natural habitat, the affectionate ethnography implicit in having rendered this particular flavor of raconteurism into print. This, it seems to me, is Leskov’s thing: a journalistic sensitivity to modes, tones, cadences, attitudes of speech. The stories are all about character types, and the principal artistic offering is their personal presence.

You may well feel that the P&V translation is the best of the three above… but what’s important to acknowledge is that it is still no good. There is no heart beating in this English, only in the Russian that it points back to.

Which curse does he use? “Confound his eyes?” “Bless his soul?” “Deuce knows what?” The particular flavor of the particular curse is everything to this story; such stuff makes up the essence of Leskov’s work! And yet there is no right answer, because he uses none of these, he uses some Russian colloquialism, which carries some kind of real living juice that we can only guess at. The “juice” in each of these translations is just borrowed junk that can’t be invested in; it doesn’t come from the character or the author. So the whole thing falls down dead, the breath of life sucked out of it.

The best a translator could do would be to take on Leskov’s entire creative task again, reimagining the character and his mode of expression from the ground up. That of course couldn’t be a very strict translation, but it might at least be readable. Dreiblatt, above, dared to venture a very little of this (“These astronomers! Basically, there’s nothing worse”), but that kind of half-measure ends up frustrating more than satisfying. In any case, Pevear and Volokhonsky, with their pride in fidelity above all, are absolutely not the people for this job, and I have to wonder what job they are the people for.

Upon googling I was pleased to find that outside the walls of Barnes & Noble, there are indeed other P&V skeptics. This page provided what seems to me a nicely illustrative case, taken from their translation of Doctor Zhivago. A critic (Donald Rayfield) complained that their word-for-word attitude had created some clumsy and lifeless English, and gave as example the line of dialogue “‘Ah, spit on the rugs and china, let it all perish.’” Pevear wrote back:

The Russian could be paraphrased as ‘don’t bother about the carpets’, as Rayfield suggests, but why give up such an expressive phrase as ‘spit on’, which also happens to be what Pasternak wrote? The norms of English surely don’t call for such levelling.

Surely I don’t need to explain what’s so stubborn and absurd about this attitude, which is in evidence everywhere in the text. P&V write not in real English but in a make-believe Englishized-Russian, for make-believe Englishized-Russian readers, and apparently are genuinely unaware of the difference. The difference is everything! Especially in this work.

Reading it was like squinting. I was always trying to make out what it had once been and what that might have been worth. That’s not what pleasurable reading is like.

But I think that’s only half to do with the language divide. The other half is the historical and cultural divide. After having read about half the stories, I came across some reference to Leskov that said he was like a Russian Mark Twain. This seemed extremely apt and helped me a great deal, both in imagining what kind of flavor might be hiding behind the text, and in forgiving myself for what I couldn’t decipher. Can you imagine trying to convey the juice of Mark Twain, the particular savor and pungency of that world, to someone from deep China with only the very roughest impression of America? That’s who I was to Leskov. He was regaling me in some way that was surely full of the smells of smoke and hay and wood, but only if you already have the context to plug in to. To me it was the sound of foreignness celebrating itself with a grin and a knowing look, in all its incommunicable subtleties.

The reading inspired morbid thoughts about the transience of all cultural context. The nuances that make life feel like life are the very first thing to go. In another century, the charms of Mark Twain may well become completely inaccessible. We forget the realities of our own pasts, of the feelings we’ve already experienced; so how can we ever hope to feel the ones we haven’t? The “historical record” isn’t even good enough for us to fully piece together what it must have really felt like to be alive only a few decades ago in our own country. At any further remove, the question of what it was like to live in a given culture seems to me shrouded in permanent and near-complete darkness. (This is why, as I’ve been telling people, I would really love to see a fully-inhabited HBO-style show about ancient Uruk and the bread economy, just for the thrill of seeing the question answered at all. It wouldn’t have to be even remotely accurate to give that rush of exploring completely new empathetic possibilities.)

Leskov knew and loved what it was like to be alive in mid-19th-century Russia. He wrote exactly of and within those nuances of “what things are like” that probably felt most vital and alive in the moment, the ones that long ago withered and died and can’t be recovered. The stories act as though they’re about human universals, but they’re really only about human universals as manifested in this very particular milieu, a milieu in which Leskov spent his whole life and nobody alive today has spent even a minute. (But at least people who speak Russian have a tradition of looking back on it, as we Americans do of imagining that we “get” what it was like to whitewash a fence.)

So my experience of Leskov was mostly of disconnect. At the very start I was enjoying the rich sense of foreign cuisine and just the simple pleasure of reading any new thing. But after 100-some pages the novelty mostly wore off. After that, I occasionally got a touch of enjoyment from some facet of what I laboriously construed the stories to probably be, but never from the text itself, never from the stories as they unfolded under their own steam.

Then in the last week of reading I suddenly had a sense of touching back down, becoming attuned to some of Leskov’s mayflies after all. In part I think this was my own personal progress; the year spent with Leskov on my nightstand happened to be a year of changing outlook, for me, and it’s possible that only at the end of that year had I opened my windows wide enough to smell 150-year-old cut grass. In part I think it was Leskov’s progress; the stories were in chronological order, and I think the later ones really were more bold in their casualness, and more emotionally open. And maybe it was just chance. Anyway, I ended on a pretty good note.

I was going to run down the stories and point out the interesting ones but I think we’re good here.

Basically, if you are intrigued by Russia and Russianness, already have a way of going there in your imagination, any of these stories might well be deeply appealing to you. But if you are like me and are just reading to encounter things and hear what they have to say about themselves, you will be left on the outside. This is why Leskov remains, and surely will always remain, lesser-known outside of Russia. These things usually happen for a reason.

Leskov backward is Voksel. I have had this thought pretty much every time I saw this book for the past year, but this is the first time I am acknowledging it to myself.

April 25, 2015

Beneath a Steel Sky (1994)

BeneathASteelSky-cover BeneathASteelSky-coverUS
developed by Revolution Software (Hull, England) with Dave Gibbons (St. Albans, England)
first published by Virgin Interactive Entertainment, March 7, 1994 (maybe?), for Amiga/DOS, £34.99
(£34.99 = $59 at 3/94 conversion rate. 1994 $59 = 2015 $94.)
(not sure about the US price but what I’ve found suggests that it was probably $49.95. (=2015 $80))
[current website]
[closest thing to a trailer that existed in 1994]
GOG package ~100MB. Actual game ~70MB. (Original non-talkie version ~8MB.)

Played to completion in 5.5 hours, 4/21/15–4/23/15.

[video: a 3.5-hour complete playthrough that tries to show everything of interest including deaths etc.; or a 2.5-hour playthrough that doesn’t. Both unfortunately use the talkie audio.]

More mesmerizing clunkiness from the king of game genres.

1992–3 was probably the peak of my teenage intoxication with computer games, but 1994 wasn’t far behind. Those were years when I compulsively watched the shelves at the stores that carried games, and would eagerly accompany my mom to the mall, at any time, at a moment’s notice, for no other reason than to examine and memorize the current boxes yet again. There are many games that I never actually played that nonetheless loom reasonably large in my imagination because of my ravenous attention to stores and magazine ads in those years. (I have in fact put off playing this game for decades because the mediocre game will surely be of less value to me than my 1992 memories of contemplating the box and hoping against hope that inside was something indescribably immersive.)

So I’ve been well aware of the present game for twenty years: “Sure, Beneath a Steel Sky, British cyberpunk game by the people who later made Broken Sword. Guy in a futuristic suit walking around a futuristic city, escaping from a conspiracy or something. I can picture the box; I can picture the graphics. Supposed to be pretty good. People online call it ‘BASS’. Someday I’ll probably play it.”

Okay, now I did! Another 20-year curiosity brought to ground. That’s really the only news here.

The title screen you see above wasn’t actually part of my experience, because the “CD-ROM version” of the game as provided by GOG has no title screen. It says “Virgin Interactive Entertainment / Revolution / in association with Dave Gibbons PRESENT” … and then the game just begins with no further titles. I guess the game becomes its own signifier. “We present: [this].”

Or more likely it’s a mistake. What I glean (from the surprisingly scanty information available) is that the game was first released on floppy disks without speech and with a physical comic book serving as prologue (in March 1994? Earlier?)… and then some time afterward (in April 1994? Later?) was released for PC CD-ROM with full speech added, and with scans of the comic book incorporated as an onscreen intro, which is the version I played. However, the voice acting is badly done, as such things often were, and I turned it off after half an hour. Everything’s either ridiculously broad or else completely flat and uncomprehending. It sounds exactly like what it is: a marathon session of standing in a booth and plowing through hundreds of pages of disconnected sentences. I can only pity the poor actors who had to do these jobs back when nobody really knew how to produce them.

Here, you can try your own skill — here are three real lines from among the thousands, literally, in the massive non-linear spreadsheet script:

• He was carrying an ID card!
• No — I’m a stranger here.
• Don’t worry — I’ll fix everything.

Good luck coming up with some really compelling, committed, and context-appropriate readings. Understand that given our time constraints, we’re probably going to go with your first take. Also keep in mind that twenty years from now, people will still be playing this game — on their phones, in fact. I know that sentence doesn’t make sense to you yet… but your kids are gonna love it.

Anyway, I downloaded the floppy version to grab a title screen (because my responsibilities to this site demand it), and in retrospect maybe I should have just played that instead of the GOG package. Again. As with Lure of the Temptress, this is a game that Revolution saw fit to set free in 2003. Though interestingly they later found an opportunity to make money with it again, by selling an iOS version starting in 2009. Currently going for $2.99. The mobile market can be ahistorical that way.

As usual, the meaning of the game is mostly implicit in the aesthetic value of the graphics. The backgrounds were drawn by Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons and then converted into that distinctive “scanned-and-processed” style, with its mottled stucco textures: everything looks like it’s been spread as smoothly as possible over rough pixel toast. Somehow, that sandpapery substratum of scanned artwork always makes me particularly attuned to the emotional values of color, which can make a game intensely engaging if it has well-chosen palettes. But the colors in this game are just okay; in nearly every room I had the feeling of a missed opportunity to be more delicious. And I don’t particularly love Dave Gibbons’s draftsmanship, which can feel a little prickly and unstable, including in Watchmen, which I put off reading for years specifically because I found it so unattractive. (Then I finally read it a few years ago. It wasn’t terrible, but it sure is overrated.)

On the other hand, that itchy, un-delicious quality creates a certain synergy with the ominous cyberpunk tone of the story, which is not very elaborate or well written and mostly has to be felt between the lines. This is one of those works where its flaws sort of get subconsciously folded in with its intentions. (I’m thinking of Herk Harvey saying that the shoddiness of Carnival of Souls ended up being essential to its power.) As a piece of craftsmanship, Beneath a Steel Sky is actually a lot iffier than its fans would have you believe, but iffiness can become a kind of seedy noir atmosphere, if you are susceptible. And as I’ve said, one must already be profoundly susceptible if one likes adventure games in the first place.

The adventure gaming here is a very mixed bag. I counted about 90 actions, of which only a few were outrageously stupid — which should be taken as high praise in this genre. But at least a third of them were pretty stupid.

Pacing is actually a more important gauge of entertainment value, I think. 90 divided over 5.5 hours of play comes to an average of 3.7 minutes between successful, game-progressing actions. However my notes actually indicate that toward the beginning of the game, meaningful events came slower, more like one every 5 minutes, and toward the end of the game more like one every 2 minutes. This correlates pretty directly with my impression of the game’s quality, which was that it was really drab at first but then somewhat redeemed itself later on. I think there may be a general principle of narrative game pacing here: I want to feel that I’ve flipped a new card at least once every 3 minutes.

3 minutes feels to me like a good long time to be completely stumped, but not so long that it won’t seem worthwhile in retrospect. I guess this is an answer to my question from some entries ago about how much resistance I want before something gives way. All things being equal — i.e. in an adventure game where the “puzzles” might as well be Mad Libs (use [noun] with [noun]) — it seems like the answer is: about 2-3 minutes of resistance. Less and it hardly qualifies as getting stuck; more and the getting stuck starts to be an event with its own identity, a moment in my life that I might well as negative even after having reached a positive outcome. 2–3 minutes of problem, followed by success: that feels significant but also without any aftertaste of regret.

Of course, internal clocks tick at different speeds depending on one’s mood. If my brain is already on overdrive, I can’t stomach being stuck for even 20 seconds. Sometimes when I’m playing the piano I notice that I am intensely irritated at myself for having to think consciously about what I’m doing for even a tiny fraction of a second — that’s always a sign that it’s time to let go of whatever my goals are in that moment. Contrariwise if I am my most relaxed, slow-pulse, delta-wave self, I feel no angst about being “stuck” on a problem for days or weeks, because I don’t actually see it as “a problem.” But of course to that enlightened self, the only value in an accomplishment is whatever is intrinsic to it; the fact of “overcoming resistance” is not itself meaningful. Which is to say that adventure games would not have much to offer.

Maybe. It’s important for me to keep in mind that when I was a kid and was having my most transporting experiences with computer games, I never finished any of them, and didn’t aspire to. I fantasized about the games a lot, but it was never about winning or overcoming anything. Mostly it was just about what kinds of further wonders might spontaneously emerge from that charmed space.

Beneath a Steel Sky is about the big evil computer that runs the city, which is sci-fi plot number 12. In this case it turns out — Spoiler Sam here, wearing his Spoiler Sombrero! — that it turned evil because it merged with a human. The scientists thought this would be a great way to improve the computer because of how great man is, but actually the computer gained man’s wickedness, his greed and cunning blah blah blah, and became a world-domination monster.

Sci-fi stories are basically all just rigged debates about the relative virtues of the left brain (Spock) and the right brain (Kirk). The “evil computer that runs the city” archetype is an exhibit in the case for the right brain, for the primacy of emotions over cold logic. (See e.g. A Wrinkle In Time.) An “evil computer” story is generally supposed to end with the restoration of warm, emotional, mortal man to the center of the social order where he belongs. But that’s not what happens in Beneath a Steel Sky.

Here we have what I would describe as a neo-nerd inversion of the archetype: actually, the computer’s only evil because it’s not a pure computer, it’s sort of a person after all. In the last areas of the game, it’s seen that the computer has somehow sprouted a huge tangle of icky organic growths, veins and tendrils and whatnot, revealing that we’re not in a sci-fi number 12 after all, we’re actually in a number 7: “organic life is a creepy-crawly nightmare; get out the guns,” which is a case for the left brain, for the necessity of cold steel and no mercy, to keep disgusting flesh from overrunning everything.

The happy ending in this game is that the computer is tricked into giving up its link to humanity and is restored to its proper status as friendly inorganic appliance that, yes, runs everything. This surprise philosophical parity swap felt sad to me, because I got the impression it wasn’t calculated, just arrived at intuitively by the game’s creators, who were still imitating stories made up prior to the rise of computers, but could no longer feel the sense of them. “Cyberpunk,” I see in retrospect, was sort of a generational transition, with cultural fantasies passing uneasily from right to left, learning to love the spooky computers when betrayed by a world of seedy humanity. Maybe now, with stuff like Her (and maybe Ex Machina, which I have yet to see) we’re beginning to undergo the reverse transition — learning to love seedy humanity when betrayed by a world of spooky computers.

To psychoanalyze a bit further — and finish spoiling the game utterly — the actual final scene is sort of ripped off from Return of the Jedi: it turns out that the man brain-plugged into the computer for all these years is the protagonist’s (i.e. your) father, and that the computer has suckered you into this whole adventure of making your way to the inner sanctum so that you, being a blood relative, might replace your father now that he’s dying. When you win the game and escape the computer’s evil tendrils, you get to watch your father die in your arms, begging forgiveness for his error in creating this monster.

The only way I can see of interpreting this (which is to say of feeling it, if I try to feel it): the protagonist’s great victory is meant to be that he breaks the family chain of being all-too-human, and heroically manages to avoid his father’s mistake of letting gross veiny emotions interfere where pure techno-logic should rightly prevail.

That seems unfortunate. The real Return of the Jedi had a much better message: dare to love your dad, even though it might mean submitting to the zappies. But I guess a lot of Star Wars geeks (like the ones who wrote this game) still manage to read it the other way: do better than your dad, resist what he was unable to resist. I think that’s getting it backward.

The script for Return of the Jedi is pretty smart, all things considered. Boy, I really hope Lawrence Kasdan hasn’t gone nervous in his old age like the rest of them.

Anyway, I had an okay time with Beneath a Steel Sky, but I was expecting a lot better based on the game’s reputation. Sure, this was stronger than Lure of the Temptress but that’s not saying much. It’s still just a middling UK also-ran, not at all in the same league as the LucasArts games of the same period in terms of charm, polish, or entertainment value. The animation is probably its strongest suit and there’s only so much of it; the genre setting and some of the story ideas are really a promising match for an adventure game, but that’s all you get; it’s fleshed out with a lot of abrasive “comedy” and moronic digressions. (Give the motorcycle magazine to the motorcycle-loving travel agent in exchange for a tour ticket? This is cyberpunk?)

Your mileage will depend entirely on how willing you are to run with what they give you. I didn’t run, just strolled. Just like the slow-ass protagonist. I’ll be honest, I was usually thinking about other stuff while I played.

Good enough for free. More of the same coming up! Or worse, in fact!

Credits are basically the people who made Lure of the Temptress plus a few more plus Dave Gibbons.

Charles Cecil: director, design, system concept
Daniel Marchant: producer, design, system concept
Dave Cummins: design, writing, music
Dave Gibbons: design, art, background drawings, comic book
Tony Warriner: system concept and design, programming
David Sykes: system concept and design, programming
Les Pace: background paintings
Steve Ince: background paintings, graphics and animation
Tony Williams: music conversion, sound effects

And a few more.

April 15, 2015

72. Le million (1931)

2000: 072 box 1

written and directed by René Clair
based on the play by Georges Berr and Marcel Guillemaud (1910)

Criterion #72.

Le Million is the title in English too. I guess in 1931 Americans were still expected to know what Le means. By 1955, when the Les had to be stripped from Diabolique(s), we’d forgotten.

This movie was a breeze, so it ought to be a breeze to write up too.

It took me about half an hour to get in alignment. At first, my sympathy instincts just weren’t kicking in and I couldn’t feel where the center of gravity was. It’s a farce, but the leads aren’t really clowns, they’re just mild-mannered 30s folk. Charlie Chaplin always seems to have a giant arrow pointing at him; in Le Million it took a good while before I could see any arrows. I don’t know if I should chalk that up to a) me and my state of mind at that moment, b) the different social instincts of the 30s, c) the different social instincts of the French, or d) this particular movie.

But once the tempo picked up in the second half, I found myself on board, understood everything in retrospect, and easily went along for the rest of the breeze.

That’s a familiar experience to me, where exposition fails and bewilders me, but as soon as we get to the “rising action” I suddenly catch up. Since high school I’ve had the idea in the back of my mind: I’m not so sure that “exposition” is all it’s cracked up to be. There’s something artificial and overrationalized about it. Usually the first thing that the author actually cares about is the introduction of the conflict. In this case it’s: “A man wins the lottery but misplaces the ticket, and has to go on a wild chase to hunt it down.” That’s a real creative inspiration. But then the next step in the creative process is this artificially imposed grind of working out the exposition: “So, hm, who is he? What is his life like before he wins the lottery? I need to establish all of this first.” This isn’t inspiration; more like duty. And the viewer can always tell the difference. So many works begin with a dispiriting dutifulness.

In reading a book or watching a movie, I pretty much always have a sense of the order in which it was conceived. One always feel things open out and relax when one finally gets to the image or idea that was the author’s original seed of inspiration: “Ah-ha, now this is something.” When that seed is the ending, I generally have a sense of itchiness through the entire preceding narrative: “Yeah yeah, but why is this the story? Why would a person think to invent this?” Then I get to the end and go “ahhhh, now I see what this actually was; I see what you were trying to say.” But if I’m going to spend hours with a book or a movie, I’d rather those hours be spent with something being said to me than with something trying to be said to me or preparing to be said to me, something that will only organize itself into a feeling of human contact after the fact.

So that’s my line against exposition: if you have something to say, you do far better to say it than to try to properly render it said. This certainly is exactly the nature of my troubles with writing. Come on, man, be breezy, breezy!

Anyway, having seen the whole thing, now that I know the intended function of everything that happens in the first 30 minutes, I’ll be able to enjoy this movie much more fluidly on a second viewing.

It’s a very light-spirited, purely cheerful work. I’m glad to be able to add another movie to that stack, one of those things that is 100% clear-hearted and can only bring cheer. It feels a bit like a Silly Symphony, that way.

What’s the most recent all-happy movie you can think of? It just doesn’t seem to be done anymore; the world today has an angsty sense of being “beyond that.” I can agree that in Le Million (and Silly Symphonies) it takes a form that is very particular to the 30s and to which we obviously will never entirely return, but I don’t think the underlying spiritual idea is at all dated or “corny” or illegitimate. Artworks of utterly undarkened happiness are still as appealing and rewarding as ever; they’re just out of creative fashion. We’ve lost our sense of comfort with making such things, even though we’re still happy to watch the old ones and yearn for those quote-unquote “simpler times.” A self-inflicted wound.

(Important typo correction just now: not an “elf-inflected wound.”)

Le Million is more or less a musical, which I think makes it one of the only movies I’ve seen from the very first generation of sound-film musicals. The one bonus feature on the disc is René Clair talking about the earliest days of sound — a good if short interview — and it seems like that’s the context in which Le Million gets discussed, as a case for Clair’s being an techno-aesthetic pioneer. I think it’s to his credit that I didn’t really take the time to think about the “inventiveness” of his sound techniques, because they just worked. (I did however make conscious note of the terrific special-effects shot with which the film begins, because it surprised me for predating the same sort of thing being done in animation, where I’m more used to it — compare the opening pan from Pinocchio, nine years later.)

The operetta-style treatment of the singing element has actually dated more noticeably than the technical stuff, I think, but I feel comfortable with it from Marx Brothers movies, which clearly are smirking a bit as they go through the musical motions. And yet just as clearly they’re not sarcastic parodies; they’re still inside of the tradition that they’re smirking at. Le Million felt similar: the movie certainly agrees with us that it’s a little funny that they’re singing. It just might not necessarily agree on the proportions.

A lot of what goes on here can be related to the Marx Brothers, most obviously the climax on the stage of an opera production, which seems like it can’t be a coincidence; it must have been deliberately lifted for A Night at the Opera. The best comic bits also have a flavor of Chaplin about them, like the situation when the protagonist, having sneaked onstage, is trying to be inconspicuous about tugging his jacket out from under a soloist singing a tragic death scene. I laughed hard at that. The attempt to get away with something impossible by “acting casual” is one of my favorite sources of comedy, and it was a mainstay of the silent era. I promise a full psychoanalysis of the phenomenon some other time.

I am struck that the musicals of this era, movie and otherwise, are still mostly unknown and are unperformed. It looks like the soundtrack from this movie has never been released in any form, despite being a cute little miniature operetta. So I ripped all the audio for myself. There are about 30 minutes of singing and another 20 minutes of incidental music (fairly prominent) in this 81-minute movie, which feels very generous.

Yeah, so maybe a lot of it’s kind of square and dumb (like the “we’re marching up the stairs!” song)… but then again, the whole spirit of the thing invites us to relinquish the concept of “square,” and I always appreciate that kind of invitation. Is Row, Row, Row Your Boat “square”? Do you really want to be the kind of person who says “yes”? I’m glad for the opportunity to put all that aside. The people onscreen certainly don’t seem worried about whether they’re being cool, so why should I be?

The score is credited to Armand Bernard, Philippe Parès and Georges van Parys; I can’t find any source that will authoritatively tell me how that collaboration breaks down. From googling, I glean that Armand Bernard led the orchestra (and is seen doing so at the opera in the film), and thus, I speculate, may have served principally as arranger…? Philippe Parès and Georges van Parys were friends who apparently genuinely co-composed many operettas and film scores, but van Parys also worked without Parès and never vice versa, so he may have been the prime mover. (We’ve listened to music by Georges van Parys here before, in rather a different mode.)

The music is mostly in a light operetta style incorporating “jazz” in only the most genteel French ways. Highlights include a six-minute tongue-in-cheek dramatic scene from Les Bohémiens, the make-believe opera seen in performance, which must surely be one of the most accomplished pieces of “fake opera in a movie” ever written, up there with the aria from Citizen Kane.

There’s also a complete love duet, “Nous sommes seuls,” which serves simultaneously as self-parody and as a genuine romantic number, with the vain heavyset opera singers played for absurdity against the artifice of the music and lyrics, but the hero and heroine having a real romantic moment, hidden in the pop-up greeting-card world of the stage scenery. The sequence, like the movie as a whole, is a heartfelt love letter to the very operetta inanities that it teases. It’s a brilliant scene, especially for its time.

I really would have liked to make our musical selection one of the many chipper little bits of comic-theater underscore, like this one, because I think they’re of very high quality as such things go, but none of them is quite entirely in the clear (the one just linked doesn’t have an ending, and then dialogue starts). So our official track is going to be the Main Title, which is just an instrumental of “Nous sommes seuls.”

Connection to the previous movie. This one’s solid: A couple has a cute romantic moment on a bench on an opera stage, surrounded by the touching quaintness of theatrical scenery, plywood trees and paper leaves. As you just saw.


April 13, 2015

Lure of the Temptress (1992)

developed by Revolution Software (Hull, England)
first published by Virgin Games, June 1992, for Amiga/Atari ST/DOS, £30.99
(£30.99 = $59 at 6/92 conversion rate. 1992 $59 = 2015 $99.)
[current website]
GOG package ~40MB. Actual game ~2.6MB.

Played to completion in 4.5 hours, 4/10/15–4/11/15.

Finished with my 2011 purchases and moving right along.

On April 8, 2012, I read a blog post telling me to play a new game that was free at So I signed up for a GOG account, which was instantly populated with their seven free games.

Six of these I didn’t really ask for, but since I went on to be a fairly loyal GOG customer (well done, GOG! the promotional freebie tactic totally worked!), I’ve come to think of them as actual possessions and not just welcome-spam. So they’re on my list; they count. Here we go, in the order they were added to GOG in the first place.

Lure of the Temptress was added to the GOG catalog on December 18, 2008, only a few months after their launch. This was back when GOG officially stood for “Good Old Games,” unlike now, when it stands for “KFC.” Revolution Software officially declared this game “freeware” back in 2003, so when GOG worked out terms with Revolution for distributing their non-free games, the idea of “you get free games when you sign up” was just dropped in their laps. In the coming years they’d really run with it.

Lure of the Temptress is a quintessentially 1992 second-tier adventure game in which a medieval everyman wanders around a medieval everyvillage. He gives gem to bartender, uses tinderbox on oil burner, etc. etc. Eventually he winds up in “the castle,” and in the very final (non-interactive) moments of the game, uses a magic rock to zap a villain. Them’s the plot.

Now, this villain happens to be a woman in a dress, “the enchantress Selena.” But Selena does not appear until the last 10 seconds of the game, never speaks, and is of no consequence to the gameplay or even, arguably, to the story. The functional bad guys in the game are these orc-ish monstermen who are oppressing the townsfolk. We’re told at the outset that X commands the monstermen, where X is “Selena,” but apart from those last 10 seconds (and a brief Polyjuice Potion bit in the middle where the player assumes Selena’s appearance), X could just as well be any other quantity, including 0.

Here is a word that never appears in the game: “temptress.” Here is something that Selena never does: “lure” (or “tempt”) anyone in any way.

The story behind this game’s hilarious name: a few weeks before the release date, the publisher asked the developer to submit possible titles for the nearly-completed game (which did not have Selena in it at all). The project director wrote up a list, and included “Lure of the Temptress” on it as a joke. The publisher called him back and said they really liked that one, thought it would really sell. The director said, “But that was clearly just a joke; there’s no ‘temptress’ in this game.” The publisher said, “Well, you can put one in.”

And so they did.

This is coincidentally very similar to the way Leather Goddesses of Phobos came to be a game: the title originated as a “ha ha, can you imagine us being so unthinkably tawdry?” joke, and then someone said, “Yes!” And the jokester responded, “huh, I guess I can too.”

Or maybe it’s not such a coincidence. Humor is the magic mirror through which repressed emotions can sometimes reach out and become real; for nervous types (such as 80s computer professionals tended to be), scoffing at the outlandish tackiness of lust can be a natural sublimation of, and gateway to expressing, actual lust.

But of course, once you’ve committed to a public show of mocking the power of sex, any concessions you make to it are going to end up being severely cramped by shame. Cramped in scope but not necessarily in intensity! Which is what leads to the much-commented sexual cartoonishness of so much geek culture. Like I was saying about Shank, you aren’t going to have a lot of images to work with, so you’re going to overinvest in the ones you do.

God knows there are a lot of video games that reveal the stunningly limited sexual preoccupations of computer geeks. But for whatever reason — probably just time constraints — even after deciding to run with a ridiculous “we don’t care” title and cover, and shoehorning a dress-wearing villain into the nearly-finished game, the makers of Lure of the Temptress didn’t actually put in any hint of sex. It really is just pure marketing bullshit.

Okay, well, maybe a hint. When, in those final 10 seconds, Selena transforms (rather grotesquely) into a scorpion-demon-thing and then, after being zapped, back again into a woman, the animation includes the suggestion of naked breasts, in passing — something never lost on the target market. I guess that’s as much smut as they could manage on such short notice.

Anyway, seems to me the proper title of this game should be something hardcore bland like “Village Quest” or “Fantasy Adventure #2,” which were the kinds of things games were called back in the earliest days of home computers.

I bet you one of the real submissions for the game title was “Turnvale,” which is the name of the village, or, say, “The Secret of Turnvale.” That has the right lame-ass ring to it. Imagine that’s the title.

But enough about the title. What about the game?

The graphic adventure is probably my all-time favorite genre. It is also one of the most absurd and awkward forms of entertainment imaginable. An adventure game purports to tell a story, but the story is almost always somewhere between yeesh-not-very-good and that-doesn’t-even-qualify-as-a-story. It purports to consist of “puzzles,” but the puzzles are almost always somewhere between yeesh-not-very-good and that-doesn’t-even-qualify-as-a-puzzle. It purports to be interactive but the actual interactions are never of any interest; it purports to be dramatic but most of the player’s time is spent waiting while the character walks across the screen.

When I was a kid, my enthusiasm made me certain that if only my friends, parents, grandparents, sister, whoever, could just be made to sit with one of these adventure games for a little while, they’d come to love them too, and I’d have someone I could share this world with. But whenever I’d cajole someone into sitting next to me and playing, what would actually happen is they’d immediately sense the clumsy pointlessness of it all, and then look to me for some explanation of what they were missing. I wasn’t an idiot, after all; if I liked these games, there must be more to them than meets the eye, right?

And there was nothing I could say. There is no more to these games than meets the eye; in fact generally there’s less.

I think to love adventure games like I did, you have to have an overdeveloped sense of the mystique of the unseen. If you go into a guest bedroom and there’s a locked trunk in it, how much of a frisson does that give you? If the answer is “none — it’s probably empty or has old blankets or clothes in it or something, who cares” then there’s no point in your playing adventure games.

The real game that adventure games most resemble is “Memory,” an important pastime from my early childhood that’s somewhat undersung in culture today. “Memory” is the mystique of the unseen in its simplest possible form. What’s under each card? You don’t know; you can’t know; it is overtly secret. But bit by bit, you will unveil what is veiled! Tarot readings are the same, except they claim that what is revealed when the card is flipped will be important and have power; “Memory” makes no such claim, because there’s no need. It’ll just be pictures of apples and flowers and buses and whatnot, the same old pictures, but they start face-down and must be coaxed face-up, and if you have a certain type of mind, that is importance and power enough. This is the appeal of adventure games. They start face-down, and by applying your concentration, you gradually turn them face-up.

“Memory” is also exactly the mechanism of adventure games. In one room, a character is leaning on a shovel. Remember that! Now you walk on past a pig and a laboratory and a pirate to another room where a character says he needs a shovel. A-ha! Flip both cards at the same time and you can claim them.

To this very sturdy core, adventure games slather on set dressing and story dressing, heaps of third-rate showmanship that could never stand on its own, and doesn’t need to: it’s just there as a thickening agent, to enhance the satisfaction of turning everything face-up. When any sort of simple satisfaction has been made thick enough, baroque enough, it takes on a feeling of depth: gosh, you could get really spend some time in here. There’s something to this! “This is important. This means something.

For me, a born locked-trunk fantasist and adventure-game sucker, even a piece of badly-dated junk like Lure of the Temptress can be gratifying. The graphics, firmly in the Amiga/DeluxePaint school of the early 90s, do their very best to seem lush and inviting. That was an era whose technology made it immediately clear how labor-intensive a given piece of bitmap artwork was. Even when the craftsmanship falters, the mere show of effort creates its own kind of mystique: “these images required great care to create, so who knows what they might hold?” As you look at the same backgrounds again and again in the course of playing, they begin to deepen, to contain more and more potential for investment, the way a jigsaw puzzle does as you work on it. To my overeager mind, every stippled shadow holds nameless implications.

In those years, whole games got by entirely on this sort of thing, and oddly enough, they haven’t aged as badly as maybe they ought. That impression that care = meaning is still powerful, even within a completely outdated context. And maybe in some deep human way it’s true. Someone applied conscious artistic judgment to every single one of these pixels, so every single one of them becomes a place where daydreaming is possible.

Lure of the Temptress has an attractive intro sequence with well-animated silhouettes, a classy technique that’s never again used in the game. It establishes a (false) sense of promise and depth at the outset. Yes, yes, it’s very obviously just smoke and mirrors — but smoke itself can be interesting, and so can mirrors!

To be clear, the particulars of this game are pretty lousy.

I counted about 40 discrete things you have to do, cards you have to flip, to get through the game. Of those, 3 or 4 are passable adventure-game fare, involving some slight modicum of forethought. About 30 are of the lowest order, an arbitrary linear chain of bland trial-and-error tasks: “talk to the blacksmith and he’ll tell you about the girl; now you’ll find that you can ask the drunk guy at the bar about the girl…” And another 5 are really asinine and irritating. (You need an empty flask, whereas you have a flask full of strong liquor. Pouring it out apparently isn’t an option. The only way to empty it is to walk around offering it to everyone until you find the one guy in town willing to drink the liquor for you.) All adventure games are dumb but that’s a particularly bad ratio.

The most distinctive thing about this game, heavily touted in the manual and on the packaging, is that its engine manages the independent activities of eight NPCs, whether they’re on- or off-screen, so that the village seems to bustle with free-roaming characters genuinely going about their business. This engine also allows NPCs to be given orders by the player, using menus to laboriously construct sentences like (spoiler for by far the hardest and most interesting puzzle in the game!): “Tell Goewin to go to Entrance Cave and then pull left skull and then pull right skull and then go to Green Cave.”

That might sound like a pretty cool engine with a lot of potential, but it’s more ambitious than it is polished. After an initial “hey, this village does seem kind of bustling” payoff, the system mostly becomes “that stupid buggy thing where the characters are always in each other’s way and can’t figure out how to step aside.” Half the time when you walk your character off the screen — whoa there, first he’s got to back up and walk automatically in a big circle for 10 seconds, to get out of the way of some free-roaming NPC who happens to be arriving from that direction. Okay, now try walking him off the screen again. Good luck!

So all in all this is a pretty lame little game, both sloppy and unoriginal, and I understand why after 10 years Revolution felt it was no longer something they could rightly charge money for (certainly not the original asking price of £30.99, good lord!). It was their first game, and one of the very first UK entries in this genre, and it feels like what it was: hopeful, not authoritative. 90% awkwardly derivative, 10% awkwardly ambitious.

But still, mostly nice pixels, and a little deck of Memory cards to flip over if you’re into that, which I am, so I didn’t mind.

Here are some parting questions from Marlene M, who seems to have put more thought into it than I have.

The GOG version is a reimplementation of the DOS version courtesy of “ScummVM,” which fixes a couple of bugs from the original but adds a couple new ones, and, crucially, does not emulate the audio hardware that the game was designed for, so it ends up producing a lot of weird tinkling instead of proper sound effects. I followed some advice in the GOG forums and ended up playing from the original files in a DOS emulator, using a Roland CM-32L emulator for the audio, which meant the game used the built-in “dog bark” and “bird tweet” and “fire” and “droplet” sounds. Pretty state-of-the-art stuff for 1992. Unfortunately GOG can’t package it this way because the legality of the CM-32L ROMs I had to download is dubious.

This is to admit that I only played this dumb old free game because it was in my GOG library, but I didn’t even end up playing the GOG version, I downloaded it from elsewhere. So it’s almost like I just freely opted to play it, which of course would absolutely have been a waste of time. I mean, of all the games in the world, why this? Nobody needs to play this.

Elephant-memoried readers will note that this is in fact the second stupid adventure game from Revolution Software to be covered on this weblog. Stay tuned!

I’m aware that my word-to-interest ratio in recent entries has been exceedingly high. But that’s just a state in my process and must be borne. If I try to edit these things into shape, I make them outwardly better-written but the process makes me a more anxious writer when the next one comes around, so it’s a vicious cycle. Better to place trust in what’s there and let it settle and clarify over time, of its own accord.

That was the original project of the blog: get used to being seen as I am. Well, this is me as I am when getting used to being seen as I am: skittish and verbose and dull. Hooray, I’m finally doing it!

Oh right, the credits:

Charles Cecil: managing director
David Sykes, Tony Warriner: system design, programming
Dave Cummins: game design, writing
Adam Tween, Stephen Oades, Paul Docherty: art
Richard Joseph: music, sound

April 9, 2015

71. Trollflöjten (1975)

2000: 071 box 1
criterion071-titleA criterion071-title

adapted and directed by Ingmar Bergman
original libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder (1791)
original Swedish translation by Alf Henrikson (1968)

Criterion #71: The Magic Flute. (Or is it Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute?)

Do we know for sure that in 1791, a popular-style opera like this (a “singspiel”) was meant to be sung prettily? I think the thing about opera that’s always confused me is that it’s so fixed on being pretty, even when nothing about the material seems to call for it. As a kid I couldn’t make head or tail of operas because I couldn’t hear them through the singing, which seemed always to be spoiled by this strange foreign element, this obsession with “beauty.” Is it possible that our ideas about what constitutes prettiness are more recent and anachronistic than we realize? That even in reading 150-year-old descriptions of “bel canto” singing, we are misinterpreting them according to our modern-day sensual enculturation? (So to speak?)

Maybe doing The Magic Flute brashly in the style of a present-day musical would be anachronistic, but better an anachronism that conforms to our living intuitions than a 19th-century anachronism maintained artificially.

Why can’t people ever do operas completely without pretension? I feel a hunger for productions of opera that treat it as naively as our high school production of Oklahoma: simply as instructions for a show that is guaranteed to work as it was designed to work. Community theater is sort of like the Wile E. Coyote approach to art, where you order the box from the ACME Corporation and then set it up according to the instructions, and press the red button and bingo, one satisfied audience. All the important artistic calculations have been made for you! Foolproof! Just add water!

So I don’t really understand why equivalently low-rent opera productions are so insistent on bringing the beauty and the glory. I guess it’s just that the skill involved self-selects people with a more intrusive ego agenda; a dentist and a librarian can get through “The Farmer and the Cowman” without ever having to think about breath control and their larynxes (larynges?), but who at the bake sale is going to sing Der Hölle Rache?

This movie makes me sleepy, which I’ve come to think reflects well on a piece of art. It’s not a movie’s responsibility to keep me awake; it’s up to me to not be sleepy, as a matter of course. If a movie reveals my sleepiness to me, that means it has relaxed me, which means that in some way it feels true and right. To fall asleep to something is to have found harmony with it.

I thought I’d seen this DVD many times already — I was given it as a gift maybe 14 years ago — so I folded laundry while I watched… but I came to realize that every time I’d watched it, I must have gone into a trance. I realized this because I found I’d gone into the trance again, and when I looked up, what was onscreen was completely unfamiliar to me. It turned out there were sections of the movie I had truly never before paid attention to. So I had to watch it twice, which delayed this entry for a while.

At my last go-round with Ingmar Bergman, I said that to be watching one of his movies is to be surrounded by feelings, and how wonderful a condition that is, regardless of what you think critically. It’s in fact the most luxurious possible situation from which to take issue with the work of art that makes it possible. And that’s my review of this one too: I am not in love with the movie, but I am genuinely grateful for the place from which I find myself not loving it.

My feelings are very very mixed. I have so many different ways of taking this movie! Like a lot of art, it makes many different possible attitudes available to me! I aspire to choose the rewarding ones and release my grip on the frustrated ones… but it’s very hard! I have such a strong intuition that frustrations can be shaken into submission and spun into gold. And won’t that have been worthwhile? In my whole life of critical crankiness, my complaints have always felt to me, in the moment, like a symptom of my having such gleamingly good intentions: “I so diligently tried to spin it into gold, but this damn straw just refuses to spin properly, so naturally I’m going to call it out!”

But of course that’s a very clouded idea of what constitutes “good intentions.” Straw after all is just straw, and there’s nothing wrong with it. There’s always going to be straw in the world; straw has its place. So, yes, I’m trying to learn not to be obsessed with it, as best I can.

Right now, “as best I can” is only okay. So here come a lot of excruciatingly nuanced complaints.

The seed of the film seems to be that Ingmar Bergman had a formative aesthetic experience seeing The Magic Flute as a child, and this project is as much about his memory of that experience as it is about the opera itself. It is all seen through the eyes of a child.

Though Bergman puts a little girl’s face on the screen repeatedly as though she’s the audience, little Ingmar is the real audience, and his outlook is psychologically particular. This is a child who experiences a great warm sense of wonder, but also one to whom nothing is given directly. In his mind, the opera production is decidedly not for him; it is mysterious and it is his privilege to see it. This goes without saying; this is the emotional ground of the movie. Being silently present near where the grown-ups are going about their business, and observing it raptly, is the natural mode of relation.

As material, The Magic Flute suits this outlook nicely because it already doesn’t make sense to anyone, adult or child alike. Mozart and his Masonic collaborators, writing a secret members-only allegory, treated their audience like children watching from the stairs. So Bergman’s childhood experience of The Magic Flute was probably that here was a work that captured the true existential condition.

For my part, I always identified more with the framework of Alice in Wonderland, who is also a polite observer in a world that runs according to its own bewildering rules… and yet at the same time tacitly understands that, despite the show of indifference and exclusion, it is in some obscure way all staged for her. Her journey of encounters with people who just barely have time or sanity to spare is the journey for which the world exists. The mysteries around her are not wondrous adult realities for her to meekly admire and hope someday to earn entrée into; they are just absurd vanities through which she can see immediately. Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, but never jam today. It’s she who is humoring them, whether or not they know it. And sure enough, at the end of each book, there’s a kind of existential concession: it is all about her; she’s on trial, or she’s being toasted as the new queen. Yes, the grown-ups are still monstrously unpredictable and not managing proper eye contact, but they are admitting to her full personhood, in their way. (Also cf. The Wizard of Oz).

Whereas The Magic Flute is all about the process of kneeling before mysteries, earning induction into the benevolent esoteric order of the temple. This is the construction Ingmar believes in. He feels it as fundamental. It is the source of all goodness. He is dependent on it to tuck him in at night. In fact, in the movie he alters the opera to turn it explicitly into a mommy vs. daddy story, in case we don’t get it.

Like so many opera productions tend to do, this movie takes the opera as preexisting — not just the ACME kit, but the living performance itself: it’s known, it’s a given. It doesn’t actually need to be “done” in the simple community theater sense, because it’s already been “done” for all eternity. Rather, it’s being “visited,” “enjoyed” as an institution. The moment when the audience takes it in for the first time is elided.

There’s plenty of love for the idea of a first time, but there’s no proper first time. No direct offering, only the implicit, indirect one. This is young Ingmar’s sense of what makes the opera great: adults already know it, and he doesn’t. He will goggle in timid wonderment.

At intermission, Bergman shows us the actors backstage, out of character, smoking, playing chess — but all still charmed, weightless. We’re not being shown reality, we’re being shown “actors” and “dressing rooms” as another layer of the child’s imagination: the soft impression that backstage these actors were maybe partially still their characters, too. I can remember having such an impression. But like so much of what’s at stake here, the real impression wasn’t something that could ever be pictured. By staging it here, Bergman does not offer it to me again; he only refers to it.

I’m aware of Bergman’s project and can recognize myself in it, which is appealing. But that recognition is dependent on my conscious maturity; it’s quite a different thing from feeling a natural affinity of the sort he felt as a child. Had I seen this movie when I was young, I think I would have been struck by its peculiar evasion and underplaying of the show itself; to what end, I would not have been able to make out. And if the idea is ostensibly to honor the spiritual life of the child, then I want to honor that part of my response. I shouldn’t have to recognize nostalgia rationally to feel the underlying order of a work of art.

I guess I’ve become exceedingly touchy about nostalgia, and it’s because sentiment that’s very important to me often gets packed away inside it, like a hard shell. I want one without the other, but separating the two is difficult and requires a new kind of attention from me. This movie contains, closely linked, the true sentiments associated with watching a work of art like The Magic Flute, and also retrospective conceptualization of those sentiments. Explicitly pointing the camera at so much “quaintness” and “charm” is a kind of schematic imposition of something that in its authentic form was subconsciously felt rather than consciously observed. The truer artistic path would have been merely to create that same impression on us now. We as an audience are just as capable of pure feeling as young Ingmar was!

The mistake that Bergman makes is thinking that he deepens his art by not simply being the grown-up who provides it for the child, but being the grown-up who wistfully is aware of everything. In fact, that awareness only weakens the trance he wants to recreate. “You are getting sleepy… You are getting sleepy… Feels weird, doesn’t it? I know, right?… You are getting sleepy…”

My overarching reservation about Ingmar Bergman is that he wants us to be aware of how much he feels. But this is exactly what a child doesn’t care about from an adult, and frankly what an audience doesn’t care about from an artist. Wanting us to feel what you feel is one thing; he also wants us to feel that he feels.

Of course, it’s a fine line. It really comes down to where I and my mind are, when I’m watching. If everything in the movie just happens to correspond exactly to that moment of my inner life, I would in that moment just see Bergman as a great soul-friend.

But art doesn’t have to be so contingent, to just sit waiting for the magic sympathy to come around. It can be seductive; it can be manipulative in the best sense. To do that, the artist has to just go about his work and ply his chosen craft; he can’t be looking for anything other than the satisfaction it gives. I may be wrong but I get the sense Ingmar Bergman always wanted something from his audience; his huge artistic generosity was the prelude to the eventual ask. Of course, he could never get there in reality, but psychologically I feel it lurking.

Maybe that’s just because I know the feeling.

Mozart surely knew exactly what he was doing, and surely hit on exactly the spirit he intended for every number. So when narrative moments of tension or mystery or horror are accompanied by blithe major-mode twiddling, it must indicate an 18th-century distance from the characters and their travails. When the music sounds like this, the audience is surely not expected to feel the dramatic situation in our modern way. Rather, they’re expected principally to feel the real situation: “we are being told a charming story and shown a charming show.” In such a culture, emotional immersion is a special effect, used sparingly. For the most part, it’s just a play, and that’s a good thing!

In Bergman’s version, this distance exists, but only at the private psychological level discussed above. He does not seem to see that the sweet inconsequentiality he brings to so much of the action isn’t just his personal avuncular wink from behind the curtain. His direction often seems to be telling us that “officially,” the movie is emotionally invested in the story, even when the music has already belied such investment. Bergman acts as though he and Mozart are in cahoots under the grown-ups’ table that is the opera. But the music is the opera. The “official” version does not exist.

By the way, as for The Magic Flute itself: I’m pretty sure the big Masonic secret, and the reason for all the hermetic rigmarole, was atheism. The outer trappings of Freemasonry are a kind of vague, mystified, sentimental humanism, to test the waters. But after sufficient grooming and ceremony and loyalty oaths and haunted housery, if you were deemed trustworthy, you’d be brought into the circle of trust and they’d tell you outright: yeah, there’s no god, there’s just mankind, and we have to do our best.

Just a hunch.

The weirdness of The Magic Flute, it seems clear to me, is a straightforward Masonic allegory: the Queen of the Night is the church. We begin believing she’s our mother and our protectress, but then we grow up and find out that she’s actually a cruel and jealous tyrant, and that can be a rough transition for all involved. But if we can pass through the silence and the darkness and the fire, guided by our magic flute of art and love, and our jingling bells of childlike purity, secular humanism can and will win the day, huzzah! And even simpletons like Papageno will benefit because they don’t actually care about religion as much as they say; they really just want girlfriends. They’ll go along gladly into the glorious new world.

But as a “charming fairy-tale opera,” it’s all messed up. In a fairy tale, if you come across the strange temple of an unknown cult, the story itself does not join the cult, obviously! Here we start in generic fairy-tale space and journey toward this cult, and then, surprise!, the premises of the story go inside the cult’s belief system, without ever actually selling the value of doing so to the audience.

Since the opera is already confusingly half-allegorical, Bergman’s softening, nostalgifying technique just turns it all into a kind of soup. Two hours of pleasant soup, shot with amber love by Sven Nykvist.

There is a part of this movie that for all my mixed feelings never fails to move me, and that’s in the gentle touch of sexiness that Bergman brings to the Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-Papagena duet at the end. At this one moment in the film I feel that Bergman’s spirit is exactly in harmony with Mozart’s, and it lifts me.

But then I think: Ingmar Bergman, with this vision of romantic joy bubbling inside him, married and cheated and divorced so many times. No images are objective. They all come from people.

Art does not connect us to the eternal; it connects us to the eternal as perceived and conveyed by others. For those of us with social hangups, sometimes it can feel like we need that permission before we can venture there ourselves. But it’s good to keep in mind that as long as it’s someone else’s creation, it’s someone else’s glasses we’re looking through. Seeing it for ourselves can only be done by ourselves, and there’s no telling what it will be for us until we see it.

One of my notes, as taken on my iPhone:

“Sarastro is Ms. cast. How does this thing know Sarot stroke but not miss cast?”

Connection to the previous movie: someone sits in the dark and is tempted by apparitions.

There are no bonus features on the disc! That was easy. Here instead is a picture of Papageno and Papagena in 2012.

Music time. The score is apparently by one Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, who was a prolific film composer also known for his work on The King’s Speech (2010), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), and Batman Begins (2005). Obviously our musical selection is going to be the Overture, all 8 minutes of it. Conducted by Eric Ericson. While you’re listening to this, I guess you should imagine a lot of close-ups of people’s faces.

Oh right, I had things I was going to say about that sequence, too. But this has gone on long enough.


April 7, 2015

Shank (2010)


developed by Klei Entertainment (Vancouver, BC, Canada)
first published by Electronic Arts, August 24, 2010, for Playstation 3 (August 25 for Xbox 360), $15
PC version first published by Electronic Arts, October 26, 2010, for Windows, $14.99
[trailer 1, trailer 2, trailer 3]
[original website]

Played to completion (of “Normal Mode”) in 5.5 hours, 3/30/15–4/7/15.

Sixth of the seven games in “Humble Indie Bundle 4″ purchased on Tuesday, December 13, 2011. This is the last of them that remained for me to play.

Here are my notes verbatim:

Quentin Tarantino was referring to schlock action movies of 30–40 years ago. These dudes are referring only to Quentin Tarantino, without understanding that the value is supposed to come from the milieu, the video store and the late-night TV. This is trash fantasy done without any apparent feeling for trash, which is a much grimmer thing than Kill Bill ever was.

“Over-the-top” is an interesting expression. Whose top?

Comic book artists like these guys, art-school whiz kids, clearly have a feeling for something, but what is the essence of the something? What is the thing they really know? It seems like they have an intuition for art, but maybe they just have an intuition for whatever life has thrown at them, what’s traumatized and transfixed them… and maybe we should hold up a sense of art as something bigger: not “what’s in your head and how does it go” but “what do you feel is good and how does it go?”

That’s the extent of what I wrote down. You can see how there’s material for spinning out an essay there, but boy, I sure don’t want to be the one to have to do it. This is how I always feel when I sit down to write these. Why can’t my notes be enough?

So, maybe they can. I announced as much a couple months ago. This sounds like a good scheme to me… except for the editing part.

The genre here is the “brawler” or “beat-em-up”: another one, like the vertical shooter, that was once a mainstay and is now a throwback. But unlike vertical shooters, I never really cared for beat-em-ups. I was sort of intrigued by what they looked like — those streets and alleyways of Double Dragon always seemed like streets of mystery, promising something special and unexpected just beyond the next scroll point — but in practice the emphasis on fight-fight-fight-fight-fighting was of no interest to me. If you didn’t think punching was awesome, there simply wasn’t enough to get you through. I never cared about memorizing all of my tough dude’s “moves,” never actually wanted to try my mettle against the next crew of two small bad guys and one giant one, or the next one, or the next one, or the one who throws the steel barrels, or whatever. All I wanted was to find out what was going to be in the background art when you got around the next corner, and once I got the gist — it’s basically all the same — I wrote off the genre.

So Shank is the first one of these games I’ve ever sat with and pushed through to the end. I think it probably wasn’t a great choice, because it seemed awfully shallow to me, and watching other people playing it on Youtube I get the same impression. You just keep hitting the different weapon buttons and keep killing people. The more you master the controls, the more effective you’re able to be, but being ineffective is fine too, because all the game really cares about is looking slick like a comic book, which it does. It was like moving my thumbs and watching an incredibly repetitive murder cartoon on Adult Swim, for 5 hours.

Since it really is explicitly a cartoon, with a fair amount of out-and-out non-interactive cartoon in it, here at least was an opportunity for the developers to load up a game with some wild and colorful writing. They could have gone the full Tarantino and had Shank go off on tangents about Chinese food, or whatever. They could have made it like a really entertaining episode of, you know, a real show! But no. It only looks like a cartoon. The stuff that actually goes on is just some horseshit that fell out when they shook their comic books.

Their idea of content is: “over the top,” which, as I said, is no sort of standard at all. Duuuude he just blew that guy’s head up by putting a grenade in his mouth!

Wow, astounding. Unthinkable. Saucy. Sick. You name it.

Here, on the DeviantArt page (!) of one of the lead developers, is a recent drawing he did of Skeletor. You know, from He-Man. As one of the commenters says: “YES!!!! This is exactly how Skeletor should look!”

That’s about the size of it. What does this “should” mean, exactly? I don’t know, and the commenter doesn’t know, and the artist doesn’t know, but whatever it is, that’s the name of this game. When Shank cuts off a Mexican wrestler’s head with a chainsaw, it looks exactly like it should look! Therefore this game is exactly like it should be!

I use the word “pornographic” a lot for this kind of thing, because I tend to think of the pornographic element as a convenient key to recognizing it for what it is. This same guy has some ideas about thighs that sure don’t come from art school anatomy class; they come from the deep prerational part of the brain that stores up images, and nurtures them, and distorts them, and invests them with power. The culture at large isn’t very comfortable with this image-hoarding part of the mind, but we’re at least willing to recognize its influence on sex, the last approved haven for irrationality. Yet it seems like now, in the era of Dan Savage, even the weirdest fetishes are supposed to get names and bumper stickers and Wikipedia articles and conventions and come out into the light of the social and the rational. Which surely has to wring all meaning out of them, right? I can’t imagine that all those furries are really and truly tapping into their spookiest private inner energies when they’re in Pittsburgh attending Anthrocon 2014, “with a fursuit parade of 1,326 and an economic impact of $6.2 million.” They’re just trudging their way through one more alienating social construction.

What I’m saying is: the culture at large is basically willing to recognize the role of the image-hoarding part of the mind on sex, but even there, it doesn’t want to face up to the fact that there’s no catching it in a rational bottle. The internet proudly trumpets to us that obscure fetishes aren’t dirty anymore!… and yet unnamed, unnameable fetishes still are. We’re all still expected to be ashamed of our images that have no names. So we end up with a very repressed, restricted sense of how our images relate to the conscious world.

That’s where the comic book dudes come in: they’re people who know how to tap into their image-centers and show exactly how things “should look,” but all they’ve got in there is Shank and Skeletor and “Slave Leia”: thirdhand caricatures of fear and lust and power that managed to slip into their spiritual life before social puberty finally and utterly slammed the door on unabashed emotional experience.

This is all very discursively to say that the art and animation of this game is done with true artistic skill and intuition, but within bounds that are to me depressingly narrow. Even mere pulp-enthusiasm is, for me, too big and three-dimensional an emotion to fit through this needle’s-eye of a worldview.

It sure does perfectly and exactly look like a Cartoon Network show that looks like someone’s fetish of a comic book that looks like someone’s fetish of a Quentin Tarantino movie that looks like his fetish of an old exploitation action movie that was made as a fetish of someone’s festering resentments. And I don’t think that’s true of any other game. So yes!!! Kick-ass!!! You did it!!! Great Skeletor, too!

“Revenge is a dish best served cold!” “Revenge is sweet!” “Revenge is mine!”

Y’all should know that in the course of playing, I got 100 chainsaw kills, which unlocked the “Grindhouse” achievement, which unlocked the “Grindhouse Shank” costume with the hockey mask!

I don’t know, maybe I’m being too cynical, maybe it’s all in some kind of good fun. But I am solemnly committed never to say “well, maybe I’m just too old to get it.” Maybe I’m just too sad or scared on a given day, sure, but one is never too old to know whether something is good. This has fancy pro-style animation but clearly isn’t very good. Review complete.

I’m including a whole bunch of the credits because it’s hard to tell how the power breaks down here. This one is sort of a notch higher in scale than the last few Humble Indie games we’ve seen here. Still a small developer, but one with the support of a big powerful publisher.

Created by Jeff Agala, Jamie Cheng
Aaron Bouthillier: lead animator
Meghan Shaw: lead environment artist
Daniel Yu: design and storyboards
Alex Colbert, Chris Costa, Kevin Forbes, Ju-Lian Kwan: programmers
Marcus Lo: game designer
Chris Worboys: junior designer
Gary Lam: design director
Marianne Krawczyk: writer
Vincent DeVera, Jason Garner: music

April 6, 2015

Super Meat Boy (2010)

developed by Team Meat [= Edmund McMillen (Santa Cruz, CA) & Tommy Refenes (Asheville, NC)]
first published October 20, 2010, for Xbox 360, 1200 MP (Microsoft Points) (=$15)
PC version first published November 30, 2010, for Windows, $14.99
[“90’s commercial”, trailer]

Played to completion of the core game (the “light world”) in 9.5 hours, 3/29/15–4/4/15.

Fifth of the seven games in “Humble Indie Bundle 4″ purchased on Tuesday, December 13, 2011.

Broomlet has backlog! Backlog. Four backlog. Gotta get through all this stuff and not make such a big deal about it. This is a perfect opportunity to take another stab at being brief and only writing what it occurs to me to write.

Once again, I only took one note on my playing experience: “There’s no such thing as ‘hard.'”

What does this mean? Yoda will explain.

Super Meat Boy is all about ‘hard,’ but what if there’s no such thing as ‘hard’? Super Meat Boy is actually all about learning. “Learn to do this thing. It might take you a while. Okay, now you can. There, you did it.” Repeat. At the end of each level, once you’ve learned to execute whatever it requires, it puts on a victory show of all your prior attempts played simultaneously: here’s what learning looked like.

I liked this about it. I liked knowing that each failed attempt was seen not an occasion for shame but as one more tick mark toward my inevitable victory replay. This was what the game was designed to expect: a final tally containing many many failures and only one success. I felt my efforts, whatever their results, were welcomed. I felt included.

And yet the game really believes itself to be about ‘hard,’ and that’s a cult I don’t belong to. Why, after all, were these the things I was supposed to learn to do? Why so many spinning saws slicing my bloody meat? If you want the psychoanalysis of this game, just watch Indie Game: The Movie, because it’s all laid out very clearly. Meat Boy sloshes blood everywhere because his woundedness is a point of pride. “He’s a survivor,” as the saying goes. But that’s not a saying I ever use. I’m here to have dreams and have fun. Was this fun?

Of Hammerfight I said that the tininess of all the stuff in the game felt like a deep psychological proclivity, a kind of aesthetic micropsia, and here we have the platformer equivalent. I think this started with the notorious I Wanna Be The Guy, which is obviously a joke game, but a joke with some teeth in it for the target audience: you are a tiny little crushable bug making your fragile way through an absurdly cruel world meant for normal-sized Nintendo characters.

The premise of Super Meat Boy is basically “What if I Wanna Be The Guy were actually fair?” (That’s like saying “What if we made a really fun prison?” — the proposal doesn’t make sense unless you’re in the right psychological pocket to begin with.) Here as there, instead of your character having the standard screen presence and weight of Mario or Mega Man or whoever, it’s more like you’re the ball in Pong: just a delicate speck that spends most of its time precariously zinging through empty space.

The crazy physics of platformers going back to Mario, wherein the trajectories and speeds of jumps can be altered at will in midair, have here been brought to such an extreme that it hardly feels like what’s going on is “jumping” at all. More like you’re pushing and dragging Meat Boy through the screenspace, subject to various obscure laws, one of which is sort of like gravity. Often I felt like what I was doing was more like freehand drawing than platforming — e.g. when you draw a circle in one sweeping motion and hope the ends meet up exactly. That’s very similar to the skill set, and sense of kinetics, at work in this game. To have such tininess and floatiness replace that good old thick, hearty Mario gravity (or even Jasper’s Journeys gravity) was strange, and never stopped feeling strange. It was like wearing someone else’s prescription. Both visually, and, as I’m saying, spiritually.

Once again, I certainly had no use for all the blood and poop and fetuses, but I get whose company I’m in and where it comes from so I’m not going to dwell on it.

The above is all just mixed feelings. My creed is that level design is where games live or die, and the level design is good, well graded, mostly unrepetitive, mostly stimulating. So, really, all’s well. I can understand why this game was a huge hit: it’s thoroughly attentive to detail. If there’s something in the game, it’s there with intention and care. That goes a long long way toward earning my goodwill, even when I don’t feel like I’m the target audience. This game knows what it’s about.

Here’s the one and only thing about Super Meat Boy to which I firmly object: those damn completion percentages.

I finished less than half of the content in the game, and yet I saw the end of the story, I saw the credits, I “beat the final boss.” But there are — hidden away in various cute ways I needn’t go into — more than 200 other levels, plus 100-some additional challenge items to try to collect, etc. etc. I think that’s all great: you finish the game, you want more? you’re in luck: it keeps on going and going. But for that magical sense of extra-ness and bonus-ness to apply, the game needs to be very explicit about how extra and bonus it all is. Like a store that has all its items on ‘discount’ all of the time — you only get to elicit that good “ooh, a discount!” feeling if you never ever waver from your claim that the higher price is the real official price. Super Meat Boy stupidly gets overexcited about its bonus content and crosses its own line, by announcing at the top of each level-select screen: “COMPLETE: 29%”.

That’s the number it showed me for “Chapter Two” after I had finished that chapter to the story’s satisfaction, beaten the boss and moved on to Chapter Three: 29%. How pointlessly demoralizing! Instead of being able to be pleased with my progress (as encouraged by, among other things, the game’s own narrative), I am forced to be aware of how I stack up against an obsessive completionist standard. This is like a “hardcore gamer” snob sticking his nose in before I’ve even finished playing the basic levels: “Yeah, you think you’re playing, but you’re really only 29%ing, newb.” Dude, you’re not impressing me, and this is my house! Leave me alone.

That percentage can exist on some stats screen, for the compulsive types that want it, but please hide it away from me. I should get to say what constitutes 100%. Or make the highest achievable amount be, say, 500%. By default, 100% should be the end of the game.

Basically, this is just another case of game designers forgetting the difference between OCD about games and games themselves. It’s a very important difference, and one that affects people’s lives. It’s an ethical issue! Don’t bring the OCD to us; we’ll bring it to you!

Of the game’s Chapter Six, the dedicated Super Meat Boy Wiki says, and I quote (sic): “The main diffuculty is that the levels are significantly more time consuming, so death is less of a slap on a risk.” The whole internet can be like wearing someone else’s prescription.

You can watch the documentary to get a clear sense of where this game came from. The credits are:

Edmund McMillen: art, design
Tommy Refenes: code, design
Danny Baranowsky: musical score
Jordan Fehr: sound effects