The Residents – Disfigured Night

20 May

Up till yesterday evening I had believed that I had consumed just about every morsel of material produced by avant-garde, eyeball headed, hyper-commercial trickster weirdos The Residents. Though their music is often lumpy and they had almost a decade of mostly producing cover versions of variable quality (approx. 1984-1989, with the glorious exception of God in Three Persons) they have a consistency of vision and imagination that appeals to me. They’re the cracked looking glass for the shallow Hellscape of America!

residents

Plus I just really like cheap synths and MIDI music.

Anyway, this article is unlikely to be of much interest to those without a cursory knowledge of the Residents. However, for a select golden few this might prove something of a minor revelation.

It turns out I hadn’t snaffled up the entirety of the Residents’ back catalogue for I had missed a perverse and compelling performance piece called Disfigured Night – original material devised exclusively for the celebration of their 25th anniversary and a live show at the Fillmore.

Weirdly cropped but I like this cover more than the original one.

Weirdly cropped but I like this cover more than the original one.

Somehow it had completely passed me by, perhaps due to the fact that the pressing was so limited. The 1998 release ran to just 1200 copies. The DVD of the show is equally hard to track down… but-it-seems-maybe-the-Residents-don’t-mind-it-being-viewed-on-Youtube-ever-so-much??? (at the very least the visual artist behind the show doesn’t seem to mind since he links to it from his official site!)

Anyway, Disfigured Night dates from 1997, a little after Molly Harvey had joined the band. The Residents would have been finishing up their multimedia projects (Freak Show, Bad Day on the Midway etc.) several songs from which were featured in the Fillmore show (though it’s exclusively the Disfigured Night section of the show which I am interested in here).

Behind one of the rides in 'Bad Day on the Midway'. An adventure game collaboration with Inscape and my first exposure to the Residents. You explore the titular midway through the perspective of various unhinged characters, jumping between bodies to access different places and gather new insights.

Behind one of the rides in Bad Day on the Midway. An adventure game collaboration with Inscape and my first exposure to the Residents. You explore the titular midway through the perspective of various unhinged characters, jumping between bodies to access different places and gather new insights.

The only other essential track from Live at the Fillmore is the live performance of ’44’ which absolutely eclipses the studio version in ferocity and Molly Harvey witchery:

Live at the Fillmore was released the year before Wormwood, which isn’t an album I have spent much time with — oddly so, considering the fact that I think that Molly Harvey was the Best Thing that happened to the Residents after a rather patchy late 80s / early 90s.

ANYWAY! Disfigured Night is **pretty fantastic** but perhaps more importantly it helps unpack and explain a lot of the Residents’ recurring motifs and themes and works as a neat encapsulation of their career in total.

First, the content. The narrative of Disfigured Night concerns a blissfully innocent naïf called Silly Billy played by Molly Harvey. Like The Who’s ‘Tommy’ Billy is unable to hear or speak. However,  while Tommy’s condition is shown to be a coping mechanism in response to trauma (witnessing his father murder his wife’s lover and then being subject to sexual and physical abuse at the hands of an uncle and a cousin, respectively) this situation is reversed in Billy. Every day Billy is assailed by visions of other people’s trauma: a woman’s rape; the suffering of a homeless little girl; the violent death of a sideshow performer. Billy seems to have a psychic connection to other people’s suffering. Yet his comprehension of suffering is limited to the degree that Billy finds these visions entertaining, even comforting; not due to any latent sadism or wickedness, but because his innocence is wholly untouched by evil in any form. The Singing Resident relates: “It even made him happy in a strange and funny way / reversing misery to joy and agony to play” and in an unexpected and beautiful simile describes Billy; “releasing pain as easy as a tree releases birds”.

Not our protagonist but strangely apposite.

Not our protagonist but strangely apposite.

As such, Billy’s innocence excludes compassion. It is a solipsistic innocence, like that of a baby. As such, Billy problematises the archetype of the magically differently able person… like Tommy he has hidden powers (in this case, a kind of intuitive telepathic ability to channel trauma) bestowed by his disability, but he is not inspirationally disadvantaged. Rather, Billy exists in a pre-lapsarian state outside of morality… which simultaneously might be considered a kind of moral blindness.

It makes absolute sense that the Residents followed this project with an album (Wormwood) that narrates stories from the Bible since the Singing Resident is working in a clearly allegorical mode. Thus, while the use of Billy’s disabilities evoke a certain queasiness in me, I also understand that Billy’s condition is more figurative than literal. Billy is like one of the children who populate William Blake’s Songs of Innocence – he embodies a state of being that is just as much metaphysical than developmental.

The Bible sometimes uses disability is what I would consider a prejudicial way, but this is doubtlessly the mode the Residents are knowingly working within.

The Bible sometimes uses disability in what I would consider a prejudicial way, but this form of Biblical allegory / moral fable is doubtlessly the mode the Residents are knowingly working within.

What is interesting here is that Billy’s innocence is neither valorised nor demonised – it just is. Billy is situated as part of the natural world, but profoundly alienated from the social world of humans. As noted, the most acute trauma of others appears to him as so many pleasing images, disconnected from narrative or meaning. This leads others to name him “Silly Billy” as the Singing Resident relates: “They called him Silly Billy when they saw his sappy face / but no one knew it came from someone’s less than happy fate.”

Billy’s alienation is depicted in far uglier terms in the song’s opening stanza. Interestingly the lyrical style of this opening (like Victorian nonsense poetry spliced with William Burroughs) is far closer to the kind of lyrics present in much earlier Residents projects, such as Duck Stab or Fingerprince.

We might compared Duck Stab‘s ‘Lizard Lady’:

What she really likes to do is sit upon a pew
And make believe that time has stopped and motionless is new
Planes are stranded in the sky and drains are stopping, too
She alone is laughing under eyelids full of flu

I imagine the Lizard Lady to look rather like an Edward Lear character.

I imagine the Lizard Lady to look rather like an Edward Lear character.

Or Fingerprince‘s Walter Westinghouse:

He buys the bacon, and the achin’
In his heart is due
To overcoats and Quaker Oats
And if his wife should sue.

Walter Westinghouse and wife?

Walter Westinghouse and wife?

To Disfigured Night‘s Billy:

Silly Billy bought his breakfast from a fat old man,
who cooked his eggs and bacon in a big black frying pan;
The pan was made of metal that was once an army tank,
holding soldiers with their wounds that oozed until they stank;
And every time the breakfast man put eggs upon his plate,
the yellow yokes stared up as Billy cut them, then he ate.

GLOMP!

GLOMP!

There’s something ickily primal and sexual about this eggy breakfast.

Eggy eye

Eggy eye

According to the great sage Wikipedia Salvador Dalí connected eggs “to the prenatal and intrauterine”.

Dalí's 'Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man' (1943)

Dalí’s ‘Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man’ (1943)

My brother has a phobia of tomatoes. He hates the way their thin, saggy flesh discloses wet mushy pulp. There is something abject about both over-ripe tomatoes and eggs in the way their boundaries are so precarious. They always seem primed to burst or spill outside of themselves.

squelch splat pop

squelch splat pop

To quote an evocative snippet of the Cardiacs’ Victory Egg: “Her egg will burst and we’ll arrive.” In fact, several of the Cardiacs’ evocatively infantile lyrics would feel of-a-piece within Disfigured Night… “Stinky Fingers takes chair”; “Come back clammy he reek all lammy”; “Dirty Boy he gone all stale. And down the stair and hallway crawling. And pig and toast and kitchen brawling.” Etc.

Cardiacs in their schoolyard grubbins

Cardiacs in their schoolyard grubbins

Steven Cerio’s art, which is back-projected throughout the performance of Disfigured Night, does a tremendous job at capturing the wee-willy-winkieness (!) – the infantile pre-sexual confused wrongness of the lyrics and imagery of the first part of the show (all egg and visceral nursery rhymes and Silly Billyness).

Steven Cerio's art is back projected throughout the performance, the drawings loosely following the narrative

Steven Cerio’s art is back projected throughout the performance, the drawings loosely following the narrative

girl-monkey-tie-tex-2copy

I don’t know if there is a word to describe this back-of-your-throat butterflies-in-your-tummy sensation that lies somewhere between budding arousal and trypophobia.

try

When I was young, on the edge of puberty, I had a dream about befriending a giant plump fly that I had to keep hidden from my family and I kind of wanted to protect and maybe cuddle with this fly and I think I tickled his(?) belly. But he(?) was also a grotesque giant fly. That’s the kind of feeling I’m talking about. In short, the images are gross and weird. In the absence of an actual word in the dictionary that describes what I’m getting at, here are some images that elicit the same feelings in me and hopefully some of you will get where I’m coming from:

Lumpen and scrotal bits (specially noses) in early Chris Ware:

In Ware this is often in relation to father issues

In Ware this is often in relation to father issues. Also when he does the ‘hollow slice of ham’ gawping wounds effect when a character is cut, which is sadly in the following panels.

Rubbery gummy drawings by John “Ren and Stimpy” Kricfalusi, especially when focused on nipples, knees, lips or butts:


Gawping pug-faced bloatyness in Al Columbia. It’s obscene softness:

I'm not a complete pervert! I don't actually find this image appealing. But there is some libidinal and obscene in Al Columbia's line work.

I’m not a complete pervert! I don’t actually find this image appealing. But there is some libidinal and obscene in Al Columbia’s line work.

The bulging and rounded plasticity of Betty Boop and her cronies:

Betty Boop on the other hand is surprisingly fan-servicey when rewatched today. Ol' smoosh head.

Betty Boop on the other hand is surprisingly fan-servicey when rewatched today. Ol’ smoosh head.

Not all manga or anime by any means, but definitely Junko Mizuno:

For the love of God do not look up Junko's art at work.

For the love of God do not look up Junko’s art at work.

Obviously the swollen fleshy fantasies of Crumb:

Some furry Crumb for a refreshing change from all his muscular women in contorted positions.

Some furry Crumb for a refreshing change from all his muscular women in contorted positions.

Certain soft fetishistic visions in David Lynch:

In Heaven everything is fine.

In Heaven everything is fine.

Billy clown sausages?

lunchmeatwithfaces

Furrydom??

gulp

THIS 100% 4EVA!!!!!

keitie_and_gummy_art_trade_by_yooi-d5cy2z9

Look, y’all *know* what I mean by infantile sexuality so I’ll just leave it there. Basically, Disfigured Night has a constant thrumming undercurrent of infantile sexuality provided mainly by Steven Cerio expanding upon some of the latent neuroses bubbling under the lyrics.

art is also gloopy, colourful and winningly grotesque

Cerio’s art is also gloopy, colourful and winningly grotesque

These images are spliced, warped, inverted, cut between and overlaid at often overwhelming speeds. The effect is both hypnotic and disorientating, producing sensations of transfixed giddiness and repulsed nausea in equal measure. Sometimes you want to look away, but feel unable to; other time you are stretching your eyes to see the images obscured behind the performers, or forcing yourself to focus in order to simply keep track of the vertiginous wave of visuals. The colours are unabashedly garish and clashing and sometimes the graphic are overlaid to such an extent and at such speed that it is hard to make sense of what you are seeing.

The aforementioned egg with Silly Billy in the foreground.

The aforementioned egg with Silly Billy in the foreground and Cerio’s art in the background.

Crudely effective digital wipe effects also make the images fuzz and distort, or run like bleeding paint. At times this even reaches so far as stretching the images until they carpet digital walls like those from the Window 95 maze screensaver:
http://www.clickhole.com/article/house-windows-95-maze-screensaver-sale-1766

Or else the images morph into pixelated landscapes that recall the PS1’s notorious LSD: Dream Emulator:

hell

The performers (Molly Harvey and the Singing Resident / Randy) along with the two musicians are surrounded by a glowing aura of neon pink, making it easier to distinguish them from the backgrounds and adding an nauseous and otherworldly tint to proceedings.

Our performers and two musicians who are not Kraftwerk

Our performers and two musicians who are not Kraftwerk

The Singing Resident, who narrates, is dressed as a cross between an organ grinder’s monkey and a circus clown. Indeed, the brief introduction that precedes the performance of Disfigured Night informs the audience that the story is told by the “ghost” of Silly Billy’s pet monkey, who dies during Billy’s journey. So, the monkey occupies a curious position as omnipotent narrator simultaneously involved in the events of the story itself, referring to itself in third person, while we watch the monkey in the present, up to and including the point of it’s death. The monkey-narrator has giant white ears (perhaps reflecting the considerable size of Randy’s own ears) and wears a red waist-coat and a red nose. His fur is white and UV purple and his eyes and mouth are blacked out so in effect he looks like a simian Papa Lazarou:

Para Lazarou. Monkey's makeup similar skirts the line between clown makeup and black face... in this case I believe this says more about the racist origins of Western clowning than it does the Residents though we might question their use of such iconography.

Para Lazarou. Monkey’s makeup similar skirts the line between clown makeup and black face… in this case I believe this says more about the racist origins of Western clowning than it does the Residents, though we might question their use of such iconography.

Silly Billy meanwhile looks like a mime artist’s depiction of a puppy dog crossed with a 1980s disco clown. Molly Harvey wears blue and pink polka-dot shots with black leggings and a black long-sleeved top with pink dots. She has a furry pink wig in which plastic ducks nest and purple and pink face makeup.

Silly Billy and his monkey friend

Silly Billy and his monkey friend

To my eyes Silly Billy also looks rather like a Dr. Seuss creation, specifically Things 1 and 2. This certainly lends to the warped cheap children’s show aesthetic on display… although in personality Silly Billy is far more like a wide-eyed Pee-wee Herman or even the typical ‘Everyman’ character from allegory.

I would add a picture of Peewee, but this post is ludicrously picture-heavy already...

I would add a picture of Peewee, but this post is ludicrously picture-heavy already…

Molly Harvey is both charming and frightening in the role of Silly Billy. She has loose-limbed and goofy, yet almost mechanical movements. She often moves slowly with am imbecilic grin upon her face, often sticking out her black painted tongue. She is spruce and knock-kneed as 1920s Mickey Mouse, befittingly wearing a pair of white gloves. Occasionally she stands still as a street performer statue or gurning with jazz hands to her face.

Silly Billy wonders why he is free when there is so much suffering in the world...

Silly Billy wonders why he is free when there is so much suffering in the world…

Molly isn’t quite serving the same role here that she does in other Residents’ works. Either she tends to elicit feelings of deep compassion through playing broken and vulnerable characters such as on Demons‘ ‘The Weatherman’ or ‘The Shoe Salesman’ or Animal Lover‘s ‘Inner Space’, childlike innocence with songs like ‘Make Me Moo’ or female power and allure on the likes of Woodworm‘s ‘Burn Baby Burn’ or the scintillating cover of James Brown’s ‘Man’s World’:

Here performance in Disfigured Night evokes a far more ambivalent reaction. It’s utterly charmingly, yet deeply repellent. You simultaneously want to protect, even love, Silly Billy, while also wanting to get as far away from him as humanly possible. It’s like with the giant fly that I tickled. The only other Molly Harvey performance I can think of (and she is remarkably versatile) that comes close to achieving something similar is in Micky Macaroni, which likewise feels as though it has a semi-repressed simmering sexual subtext churning away below things. Odd song with nice taunt Snakefingery guitar:

Back to the plot… In many ways it combines aspects of Not Available, God in Three Persons and anticipates Demons Dance Alone (which is nice as these are basically my three favourite Residents albums!)

It’s a long form narrative like Not Available or Gi3P, almost a mini-opera that focuses upon shifting identities (especially between genders) and the movement from innocence to experience then to absolution. It provides a far more thorough unpacking of the final lines of God in Three Persons:

Pain and pleasure are the twins
That slightly out of focus spins
Around us till we finally realize
That everything that gives us pleasure
Also gives us pain to measure it by.

Musically it has more in common with Demons or Animal Lover (though not as percussive or melodic, perhaps) and shares their concern with humans’ relationship to animals and trauma — particularly what can be done with emotions like loss, fear, pain and rejection and whether they can be transformed into beauty and art. Also, the narrative shares the kind of hyper-real banality that both those albums have, especially Demons.

Occasionally the music becomes a little repetitive or relies too much on keyboard drones, but it has sharp moments of brilliance: a manic, high-pitched ditty that sounds like it’s been rasped out on a tiny toy trumpet, replete with obnoxious Oingo-Boingo style skank beat; an inspired use of the central melody of Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’; some gratifyingly doomy keyboards and an electric guitar used mainly as a percussive instrument. It is a shame that the music isn’t uniformly excellent or compelling since Randy / Homer(?) offers some of his best lyrics. Lyrically he was clearly on form around this period — the Freak Show album (and CD-ROM) from a few years before Disfigured Night is often too aggressively MIDItastic for my tastes, but contains lyrical gems like:

Half a mouth may not be much

But it’s still half a kiss

Contrariwise there are later albums like Tweedles, which I think are musically sublime, but feature irritatingly crass, even juvenile lyrics that can’t merely be excused as being from the mouth of a warped and unreliable narrator. Tweedles plays with much of the same imagery as Disfigured Night, its main protagonist being a man who wishes to be a clown but has become a sexual predator in response to childhood trauma. It manages the theme of transforming ugliness into beauty with a lot less grace and intelligence than Disfigured Night and, for me at least, only really hits home on the penultimate track ‘Shame on Me’, which is cute-gross in the same way as Disfigured Night and is my second favourite re-purposing of Pachelbel’s Canon after the opening section to Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974).

I am hesitant to reveal too much of the latter plot of Disfigured Night, only to say that Silly Billy comes across a one-legged monkey who he endeavors to return to its owner. His friendship with the monkey opens him to the feeling of compassion, but with it, the experience of suffering. The story ends up taking the form of a journey into darkness and then into light, in which Billy is reconciled with the world and with God.

God?

God?

At once his mind was wild with words that he had never known
defining lines inside the song with light and liquid tones;
He sat up straight and radiated life from far within
the center of his soul where pain and darkness once had been

The Residents seem to respect Oscar Wilde’s maxim: “How else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in?”

Yet there remains an element of mockery. When the mute Billy finally finds his voice he sings the words to Michael Jackson’s charity single for USA Africa We Are the World… but instead of ending on the line “It’s true we’ll make a better day / Just you and me” the Singing Resident repeats the “and me” ad nauseam over and over again until the end, suggesting that at the heart of any charity act will remain a kernel of self interest. As such, it seems as though Billy might not be any wiser, but has come full circle to the position of solipsism that he occupied at the start of his journey.

A disc spins behind Billy and monkey as they move together in a circle

A disc spins behind Billy and monkey as they move together in a circle

Yet there remains something perversely moving about the cover of We Are the World as though the Residents are seeking to redeem the ludicrous through making it even more ludicrous. Can one break through the trappings of irony and self-interest to reach something earnest and meaningful? Can one escape one’s childhood sexual neuroses to become a fully actualised human being? Can celebrities only perform in good faith at charity concerts if they hide their identities like the Residents and wouldn’t it be better if the Residents had donated their money from the Fillmore Show to a worthy cause rather than just mocking the likes of Bob Geldof??? Only the Residents know and they ain’t telling!

Finally, Disfigured Night also helps illuminate two perennial Residents obsessions / themes.

Firstly, it solidifies my suspicion that the Singing Resident / Randy / Homer (?) had either a pet or a toy monkey as a child. Growing up in Louisiana it is entirely possible it was the former. I wonder if Randy either mistreated the monkey pet / toy or else it was his earliest attachment object, as evidenced by the lyrics to ‘Monkey and Bunny’ on Title in Limbo and maybe even Animal Lover’s ‘Monkey Man’. Of course, the pet bunny crops up again in The Bunny Boy. Wild speculations perhaps, but I wonder if there isn’t something there…

Title in Limbo w/ Renaldo and the Loaf

Title in Limbo w/ Renaldo and the Loaf

Secondly, since the concert finishes with a performance of We Are The World by MJ I can’t help but see the titular character of Silly Billy as an avatar for Michael Jackson who, of course, was best friends with a monkey called Bubbles. The lyrics also focus a lot on Silly Billy’s changing face and childlike demeanor.

The artists most explicitly addressed, referenced, covered or even valorised by the Residents (as opposed to merely kitchily mocked) tend to be artists who combine an unbridled passion, joy and childish energy, with more trouble psychosexual neuroses or troubling, even paedophilic or otherwise abusive behaviour. Elvis and Michael Jackson strike me as very similar troubling and troubled figures in some way… there’s something endearing and innocent about both, but at the same time, their fixation upon childhood seems to have been pathological, even sexual. Elvis having pajama parties with 14-year-olds girls, snuggling but never going so far as sex, pretty much encapsulates the man I think.

“Elvis played the gentleman, settling for pajama parties where he often styled his new friends’ hair, gave them makeup lessons, or engaged in tickle fights punctuated by kissing.”

The Residents’ Baby King. Pure ID… but in the same way that a child is pure unbridled ID.

Randy-Elvis

Randy-Elvis from a performance of ‘Teddy Bear’ on Night Music

I think the reason why Elvis and MJ remain so celebrated and beloved despite these squicky details is 1.) that they were iconic to the point of transcending individual selfhood 2.) that they maintain this kind of child-like purity… there’s something endearingly infantile about them… more cuddly than predatory. Both have Peter Pan syndrome.

Jeff Koons' 'Michael Jackson and Bubbles' (1988)

Jeff Koons’ ‘Michael Jackson and Bubbles’ (1988)

I don’t necessarily think it’s the disturbing psychosexual stuff that most interests the Residents (though obviously the libidinal neuroses is there) but the fact that a character like Michael Jackson or Elvis somehow encompasses absolute innocence with absolute experience. The innocence is part of the corruption and the corruption is part of the innocence. Like yin and yang, the black and white are inextricably intertwined. I think this might also be said of James Brown (of whom Randy / Homer in the live version of ‘Life Would be Wonderful’ says meeting was the best day of his life) who was beautiful and joyous and revolutionary, but also a domestic abuser. Same with John Lennon, though the Residents haven’t focused on him so much as the Beatles more generally and often in a mocking and less respectful way.

Anyway, for fans Disfigured Night is well worth watching. Visually it’s fascinating, even beautiful at points in that ugly Residents way, doing very odd things with projection and over-laid images. There’s some obvious Pore No Graphix by Homer and the rest of the art by Steven Cerio is uniformly incredible, goofy yet disquieting.

Molly’s dancing is demented and hilarious. The make-up is astonishingly grotesque. The Singing Resident puts in one of his post bravado vocal performances, kind of like a far more unrestrained and manic version of his narrative voice in God in Three Persons, but with more yelping and snarling.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jl0FoqRyE7A (part 1)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnRypuBy1eU (part 2)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wZj9IGKpMM (part 3)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nxEOX4yrCyE (part 4)

Enjoy the goofy melancholia and have a Dr. Seuss inspired existential crisis with the Residents!

See ya!

See ya!

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Matchstick Men (2002)

27 Sep

Matchstick_Men

Matchstick Men is a slight but agreeable film by Ridley Scott that follows the misadventures of two con artists – Roy Waller, played by Cage, and Frank Mercer, played by Sam Rockwell. It is a slick diversion, in which everything functions at it should with grace and efficiency, like a classic crime caper from the 1950s cut to the smooth and pacey rhythms of Ocean’s Eleven (2001) or Catch Me If You Can (2002). There is a causal amorality to proceedings, redeemed by the relationship between Waller and his teenage daughter Angela (Alison Lohman), from whom he has been separated for many years. In fact, the film slyly wrong-foots the viewer with scenes that immediately seem sentimental, but appear less so in retrospect, with some very clever up-endings of audience assumptions. The film is spry, sure-footed and self-assured. There are cool wipe-cuts. Of course, such casual virtuosity, leads little to chance, so there are few, if any, moments of genuine serendipity, in which everything comes together just so to create an impression that stays for months, even years, after watching. Most of my favourite films have such scenes – the trip to the beach in A Room For Romeo Brass (1999); the scene with the night watchman in Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993); the ghastly but compelling music played by a pimp and madame in Herzog’s Fata Morgana (1971) – produced by improvisation or sheer happenstance, in which certain emanations seem to arise from the atmosphere and adhere to the characters, taking them out of time, as though only that strange, perfect moment in which they are enclosed exists.

like this, but less focus grouped

… but less focus groupy

It is a hard thing to put into words and probably a harder thing to pull off, but such moments are unforgettable. Generally, I like my films to be a little awkward and pigeon-toed, to consist of brilliant moments and be a little insecure, even ragged, in their plotting. For this reason, sometimes perfectly well put together and critically lauded films like American Beauty (1999) or The Lives of Others (2006) can leave me cold just because they seem a little too clean, tidy, well-ordered, safe. I don’t necessarily want the movies I watch to function like well-oiled machines. There is something alienating and even tedious about such formal perfection (especially when off-set against arguably vapid content, as in American Beauty). All this is to say, that Matchstick Men is not the kind of film I usually enjoy. Indeed, I was left uninspired by Ridley Scott’s colossal but wearying Gladiator (2000); so, while I am fond of both Ridley’s Thelma and Louise (1991) and Blade Runner (1982), I was not expecting much from Matchstick Men.

'Gladiator' must be dull, as frankly I think I should remember this character!

‘Gladiator’ must be dull, as frankly I feel I should remember this character!

However, Cage provides. In fact, in a sense, Nic is best served by quite conventional, well-made films, because he’ll always add an element of chaos to proceedings. Matchstick Men wouldn’t be half as much fun without Cage and he provides an earnest, but nutty performance, that holds the whole enterprise together. I was particularly interested in Nic’s performance as Roy Waller since I had already heard prior to watching that the character has O.C.D. I have obsessive compulsive disorder myself! I too know the pain of having people tell me that they’re “a little O.C.D.” and have baroque, intricate showering rituals that only I can understand! As such, I was intrigued to see how Nic captured my very own moderately debilitating mental condition.

As might have been expected, he did so in a typically gestural way.

It is very hard to capture twitchiness in static form... here Roy looks the picture of calm repose!

It is very hard to capture kinetic energy in static form… here Roy looks the picture of calm repose! You’ll have to trust me. He was very animated!

Nic’s portrayal of this hyper-powered schmuck with O.C.D. is a melange of bite-sized tics and twitchy freak-outs. He captures something of the mania of the condition… the irritating, ever-present obsessions and the repetitious cycles of behaviour they produce. Nic’s performance was probably a little too goofy to communicate the despair this can engender. I didn’t have the sense that his mind was constantly assailed by disturbing thoughts, but simply, that he was compelled to do the same actions over-and-over, to an irritating and crippling degree. In this way, Nic perhaps gets the cause-and-effect of O.C.D. back to front. Generally, a sufferer engages in the outward behaviours that characterise the condition (the hand-washing; touching things repeatedly; opening and closing doors; etc.) in a desperate bid to impose some semblance of order and control upon their environment, that is severely lacking in their turbulent inner-life. This is a form of magical thinking. If one’s environment is just so, then mentally, things will start falling into place… the universe will become more benevolent; the feeling of doom will – momentarily at least – dissipate. To be fair to Nic, O.C.D. is a very misunderstood condition. Understandably enough, non-sufferers only see the external stuff, which is really just the tip of the iceberg.

Yet Nic’s manic energy is undeniable. It is a somewhat cartoonish performance, but instead of the gangly youthfulness of Raising Arizona‘s H. I. McDunnough’s, there is the doughy fretfulness of Adaptation‘s Charlie Kaufman. Roy is a wired motor-mouth, always ‘umm hmming’, never making eye contact, locked in his cycles of erratic, yet predictable, repetitious routines. There is a sense that O.C.D. is being used as metonymy for arrested development. Roy is a habitual criminal, with no real achievements to speak off; a business partner instead of a friend; a daughter he hasn’t seen for the entirety of her fourteen years. He barely leaves the house and subsists on tins of tuna chunks. He is not waving, but drowning. He thinks he’s cool, but in reality he is a man who makes his living from scamming vulnerable old ladies who probably collect little china scottie dogs and watch The Antiques Roadshow. Instead of taking down big fish with a harpoon gun on the seas of corporate finance, he is shooting small fry in a barrel with a pea shooter made of telephone fraud. This is a man with a guilty conscience… to which his tics and anxiety are meant to testify. Indeed, these tics even reach as far as some desperate ‘Loony Tunes’ style comedy gulping at one point, as though the devil were breathing down Roy’s neck. Frankly, Roy had better enjoy the high-life while he still can, because as his partner Frank points out to him, “there’ll be no air conditioning for you in Hell”. In short, the conclusion I drew from the film is that if you’re suffering from O.C.D. then you’re probably a criminal.

John George Haigh, the "acid bath murderer", a famous sufferer of O.C.D. along with mass murderer Andrew Kehoe and presidential assassin Volkert van der Graaf, according to this inspiring list of famous people with OCD: http://www.disabled-world.com/artman/publish/famous-ocd.shtml Also featured: abusive actor Billy Bob Thornton, evil capitalist Donald Trump, right-wing shock jock Howard Stern, unrepentant woman-stabbing, drug addict, Charlie Sheen, and Limp Bizkit front-man Fred Durst ;_;

John George Haigh, the “acid bath murderer”, a famous sufferer of O.C.D. along with mass murderer Andrew Kehoe and presidential assassin Volkert van der Graaf, according to this inspiring list of famous people with OCD:
http://www.disabled-world.com/artman/publish/famous-ocd.shtml

Conveniently (maybe too conveniently) Roy’s daughter Angela arrives into Roy’s life like a breath of fresh air, winsome and pine-scented. Angela is the embodiment of the teenage child as authentic, freeing agent of chaos. She up-ends Roy’s life, but also allows him to experience joy and delight in a way that he clearly hasn’t felt for years. Roy is a bad father. He is not a bad father to the degree that Big Daddy in Cage’s later film Kick-Ass (2010) was a bad father, but he is similarly intent upon schooling his daughter in the lessons of criminality. Also like Big Daddy, Roy is kind of slick and kind of… frumpy. I should probably write a whole post at some point about Nic’s relationship to ‘cool’ and whether he is ever cool or not. I’m pretty sure that Roy isn’t cool. He’s too nervy and he accuses his daughter of being a “nosey parker”, which is definitely not a cool phrase to use.

Finally, for aficionados of so-called “Cage rage”, there is a particularly superlative example in which Roy does not have the time to spend waiting in a queue in a supermarket and screams “Hey, have you ever been dragged to the sidewalk and beaten until you pissed blood?” I am still undecided as to whether this was intended as a threat or as a painful reminiscence delivered with self-pitying righteousness. It is actually quite scary.

RARGH!

RARGH!

There is a quote in Matchstick Men, although I cannot remember who says it, that goes: “For some folks, money is a foreign film without subtitles.” The producers of Matchstick Men, underline those folks, understand money and know how to put it to good purpose. They have not produced a foreign film without subtitles, but a slick Hollywood product. Personally, I like foreign films without subtitles (although, then again, I don’t really understand money, so maybe that figures!) but I can also appreciate a well-budgeted American production, especially if a lot of the money is spent on securing a leading role for Mr. Cage. He is on fine form here and it is worth checking out.

My current favourite picture of Nic.

My current favourite picture of Nic.

And a picture of Rose McGowan - someone on the O.C.D. list that I actually like!

And a picture of Rose McGowan – someone on the O.C.D. list that I actually like!

‘Megahex’ Review! (An Adults Only Post!!)

19 Sep

Megahex sounds like it could be the title of a Cage film. It would be about a heavy metal fan who falls in love with a witch and brings the power of rock to her heart and to her coven. However, in this case, Megahex is the title for the first printed collection of ‘Megg and Mogg’ comics by Simon Hanselmann, which I will review now.

Meg and Mog (note the lack of double ‘g’s) are two characters created for a series of children’s book by Helen Nicoll, illustrated by Jan Pienkowski. I read about their mild and gentle antics when I was a child. Meg was a witch and Mog her black cat. They were also friends with an Owl.

Here they all are tucked up in bed together:

600full-meg-and-mog-photo

Pienkowski’s illustrations really are gorgeous. Pop-art meets Russian poster design filtered through a child’s view of 70s psychedelia!

There is also an Owl in Simon Hanselmann’s comics and the dynamic that is visible in the picture above (the witch and the cat are something of couple, while owl is the dorky third wheel who gets in their way) persists.

Here are the main characters from ‘Megg and Mogg (and Owl)’:

another-MeggandMoggsample2

The owl smoked basil.

The line-work is simple, but lighter and more hesitant than in Pienkowski’s assured illustration. Instead of uniform red, yellow and black, there are faded, gently blotchy watercolours… grey, rather than black, and a swampy green for Megg’s skin. Everything is washed out. Note the half-shut eyes and the dialogue.

At first glance it would seem that Hanselmann has simply produced a ‘dark and edgy’ reboot of a children’s classic… the innocence of the original infused with (OMFG!) drugs and Kevin Smith style stoner laffs. I have seen the comic dismissed on these grounds.

The 'American McGee's Alice' of the comics world.

The ‘American McGee’s Alice’ of the comics world.

However, this is something of a ruse. Or rather, using beloved children’s characters in a mature work is just the starting point (and really, the shared names and identities are about as far as the homage goes).

So. Megg is a depressed witch with a Tumblr account; Mogg is her familiar and lover, though isn’t good at respecting her sexual boundaries; Owl is kind of a huffy nerd, who the other two bully. The art is soft and tactile and appealing, shifting from the aforementioned washed-out watercolours, to near-monochrome grey scale, to suit the tone.

tumblr

Megg, Mogg and Owl are all wastrels, who mostly smoke pot and watch DVD boxsets of iCarly.

This is a bad life style choice.

This is a bad life style choice.

That is to say, their lives are kind of stagnant and their jokes mindless or puerile. Owl is often the target of Megg and Mogg’s half-assed cruelty and a victim of their pranks. He’s the only one of the three who imagines himself as “upwardly mobile”, but really he’s just an owl with pretences, approaching 30, who has issues with alcoholism and sex addiction. Hanselmann observes these characters with a weird cross between anthropological detachment and emotional intimacy. He clearly likes these characters (and the whole thing wouldn’t work if he had real disdain for them… it would turn into something like Reefer Madness if the tone ever approached ‘judgemental’) but simultaneously feels distanced, even alienated, from them. You get the sense that Hanselmann in his early 30s is reflecting back upon the lifestyle of his 20s and is still trying to work through how he feels about it. Sometimes he’ll take relish in the stupid jokes and pranks, while at other times, there’s a feeling of regret… not so much moral regret, but just a sense of life having been wasted, with all that the double meaning implies.

Not actually from 'Megahex'.

Not actually from ‘Megahex’. This is really pretty though! I really like the shading.

What starts out as stoner hijinks slowly curdles into something much more sour and melancholy. The first quarter of the book may seem a bit throw-away or even stupid… but persevere. It’s kind of like the progression from Beavis and Butthead to King of the Hill that helps you appreciate that there was actually a lot more darkness and sadness in the former show than you first thought. The whole thing is pretty bleak, but there are moments of real, hedonistic, ovaries-to-the-wall joy, amongst all the nervy drug-addled angst.

The humour reminds me a bit of the Mitchell and Webb sitcom Peep Show with Owl as a neurotic and uptight Mark figure and Megg / Mogg more like Jeremy or Superhans. Importantly, Mark is just as corrupt as Jeremy, but is in a greater state of denial about the fact. (As an aside, I find it interesting that most viewers seem to genuinely view Mark as the more moral of the pair, whereas he’s really just more sanctimonious. Mark is scheming and bitter and really creepy when it comes to intimate relationships, stalking much younger girls, hacking into emails and generally being something of a prick. Jeremy, on the other hand, is basically a sweet-heart… just a grossly irresponsible and idiotic one. He also – amongst all his affairs – gets regularly sexually exploited / abused, which is something that a lot of people seem to miss.) There’s a similar coupling of bemusement and pessimism. The characters are screw-ups, but kind of likeable despite themselves. A lot of immoral / illegal stuff happens, but it rarely seem motivated by genuine evil, but by an inability to integrate into normal, law-abidin’ society. Characters mess up and hurt each other and commit crimes and fall to pieces because they’re lazy, confused and wretched. Finally, the humour of both is cynical and melancholy, but pretty humanistic, with the occasional foray into slap-stick and just plain old gross-out gags.

The beady eyes, comb-over and oddly spaced teeth are signs of a genuine deviant. By contrast, look at Jeremy's moral concern!

The beady eyes, comb-over and oddly spaced teeth are signs of a genuine deviant. By contrast, look at Jeremy’s moral concern!

Perhaps an even better comparison would be the maligned Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker sitcom Nathan Barley about the post-ironic moral degeneracy of East-End (Shoreditch; Brixton) London hipsters. In this comparison, Owl would be the character of Dan (Julian Barratt), who wants to rise above his surroundings, but at heart is no less of schmuck than his friends, who are far better at playing the glib ‘too cool to authentically feel anything’ game than he is. Nathan Barley is, in essence, one 6-episode long tirade against Vice magazine… which, coincidentally, publishes Hanselmann’s comics online.

'Sugar Ape' - the in-show parody of 'Vice' magazine.

‘Sugar Ape’ – the in-show parody of ‘Vice’ magazine.

*Trigger Warning for brief discussion of sexual assault in the comic*

Basically, Owl cares too much for him to be able to comfortable inhabit the scene. He has too many feels. Without revealing too much, there’s an incident in which Megg, Mogg and their lovably wretched pal Werewolf Jones “prank” Owl, which he (very understandably!!) later insists was sexual assault… but, despite Owl’s assertions, his friends just see what they did as a joke and Owl can’t get them to re-frame what happened. After all their assault wasn’t a “real” assault… but rather, an ironic play-acting of an assault. It reminds me of a line of dialogue from two of the hipsters in Nathan Barley: “Well, the idea, yeah, was to make it look like these models are being molested in a magazine office, yeah… when actually that’s sort of what was really happening… yeah, only cause we were all in on it, yeah, it isn’t… except cause we were actually touching them, it *kind of* is”. There is the same use of ontological fuzziness (is this “real”? is it “pretend”?) to get away with doing horrible things.

Anyway, there’s that distinction between experiencing life as “heavy” and experiencing life as “light” that’s at the heart of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Is life really genuinely important, meaning that the bad things that happen should be taken really deeply seriously? Or is life just a game with obscure roles in which everyone is pretending and faking it and essentially everything is meaningless anyway so why does it even matter if someone gets hurt? The good thing is, unlike Kundera, Hanselmann isn’t a misogynist. Megg is basically his stand-in and Hanselmann shows her shaving her legs with a lighter and having to deal with depression and other real human stuff that a lot of male writers wouldn’t bother talking about. Plus, Hanselmann looks incredibly good in drag, which helps matters immensely (not necessarily in a ‘this comic is totally progressive way’ but simply in a ‘this guy is really pretty way’).

hanselmann

i-should-probably-try-to-objectify-simon-hanselmann-less-but-maybe-he-is-sort-of-ok-with-being-objectified-and-i-dont-know-the-ethics-here

Actually, the comic is really good at presenting messed-up relationship stuff. I don’t know if I’d go as far as to say that Mogg is abusive (EDIT: actually, on second thoughts, I would), but he isn’t a very nice cat and totally crosses some of Megg’s sexual boundaries. It’s sad and troubling and sometimes funny in a really horrible way but mostly just sad.

Mogg needs to lay the Hell off.

Mogg needs to lay the Hell off.

So, some of these characters are pretty shitty people / animals. At the same time, you mostly end up rooting for the bunch of them. There’s a weird camaraderie about reading the comic… in a short amount of time you feel as though these guys are your stoner friends. Though you probably wouldn’t actually want to be friends with them. Interestingly, I had already read most of the comics online and had basically experienced it as highly episodic with no real continuity or plot progression. This isn’t actually the case! Reading the same comics again within the Megahex collection, Owl emerges as more of a central character. His struggle to assert his independence and escape the bullying of his friends becomes, perhaps, the central plot of the comics.

Anyway, it’s good stuff. Touching and comforting and disturbing and worrying all-at-once. It might just keep you going through some dark nights or, at the very least, provide some rough chuckles.

megg moggFinally, here’s a link to an absolutely wonderful interview with Hanselmann. He interviews real good:
http://www.tcj.com/disgusting-creatures-the-simon-hanselmann-interview/

Around 2010, two years and around 80 pages into it, is when I decided I wanted it to get a little less silly and “prankish.” I’d decided that I wasn’t completely satisfied with my teen-drama thing and that I’d take a break from it and inject some more of my depressing, horrible material into Megg and Mogg. I was [originally] going to go really dark kind of out of nowhere, but I’m very slowly rolling it out. The “Megg’s Coven” serial that I’m working on irregularly is going to get pretty damn dark eventually. It’s all about my mother and my grandmother and our generations of brokenness. Our recent fuck ups. It’s basically straight-up autobiography. If I put this shit on paper I can make it seem less confusing and horrific in my reality.

Favourite Games by Ebi-Hime

2 Sep

I should have a review of Cage’s Matchstick Men (2003) coming up soon, but in the meantime, I thought I’d bring to your attention some wonderful games by my friend Ebi-Hime. I know some of you readers who know me in person know that she makes games, while other Cageaholics won’t have heard of her before. Anyway, for those of you who have wondered where to start with Ebi-Hime’s prolific output and for those who have never even played a visual novel before, this post will put things bang to rights!!

A magical shrimp princess

So. A visual novel is a story-game you read on your computer. Sometimes there will be choices, sometimes not. Visual novels are like comic books in that they combine words with images and like films in that they often use music and tend to be dialogue based. They are like games because they involve interaction and sometimes choices and rules. They are generally very simple to read though, so non-gamers will not have a problem. Generally, the mouse is used to click through dialogue screens / pictures and occasionally a choice of two or more options might pop up and you choose the one you prefer (or feel is the most appropriate for the character). They tend to be written in first or second person. The player / reader occupies the mind of a character and experiences the things the character experiences. A lot of visual novels are quite light and some are erotic, though none of the ones Ebi-Hime makes include any sexual or explicit scenes. For those of you who get a taste for the medium, I would recommend Umineko: When They Cry, which is a mind-bending magical murder mystery investigation into the nature of truth; Chaos;Head, which is a gritty and atmospheric conspiracy theory horror; and G Senjō no MaōThe Devil on G-string, which is a wonderfully involving story about a young man whose father is a Mafioso. The latter two are a little adolescent in tone and contain some eroge elements, but are certainly worth a look. The singular nature of the visual novel medium (and the fact that they can often rely on slow pacing to achieve deep character development) can mean that they translate very badly into the medium of anime. Frankly, the Umineko and Chaos Head anime should both be avoided.

uminekoAnyway, this post is not about the visual novel medium per se (which I have limited experience with) but Ebi-Hime’s best games. I’ll start at the top, but I’d recommend all of the below and suggest you take a look at whichever piques your interest.

1.) Lily of the Valley

A short game with only one choice at the end, perfect for those who have never experienced the medium before. Lily of the Valley puts you in the shoes of a man in his early 30s stuck in a dead-end call-centre job, travelling back to Wales for the funeral of his mother, where he meets a young girl, who identifies herself as one of his mother’s students. The game is a subtle, but quietly searing portrait of male entitlement. Tonally, the experience is melancholy, but not without humour, like the most low-key episodes of Peep Show. The male character is a well-written man from a young, female writer, who is sketched sympathetically, if not positively. The narrative is simply, but the episodic, chapter style keeps things propulsive. The music is very well suited to the game and the backgrounds are minimal, but pretty. It may come across as overly critical of the depressive / melancholic mind-set, but I think it is more critical of the inability of many men (including myself) to see things from other’s perspectives… or at least, to de-centre oneself from the narrative of life. One of the psychological effects of patriarchy is that it allows men to see themselves as ‘neutral’ i.e. when a woman of colour looks into a mirror, she is trained by society to see a woman of colour reflected back at her. When a cis, able-bodied white man looks into a mirror, he sees a human being. The game remains the player that their life is not simply their own and that one cannot escape the inter-connectedness of existence, nor our reliance upon other human beings. It is a harshly compassionate work. The equivalent of a Kurt Vonnegut epigram.

lily

Download it here:
http://www.mediafire.com/download/7gy62h6bsnseqti/Lily+of+the+Valley-1.01-all.zip

2.) White Box

A sad, small story about a girl who is dying in hospital and wants love and attention from an older, male doctor. The narrative is pretty straight-forward (although I certainly can’t think of enough examples of the same story to justify calling it clichéd) but the characterisation is keenly observed and the moral issue at its heart – what level of intimacy / friendliness is appropriate for a doctor-patient relationship? – is carefully handled and does not veer into exploitative territory. The story is morally nuanced and the doctor is never characterised as a villain, even as he steps over lines of ethical practice. In fact, it feels like a very morally sober, even distanced work, which probably displays the influence of Ryū Murakami upon Ebi-Hime’s writing. The story contains aspects of melodrama, yet the tears it brought to my eyes felt earnt. It is a non-choice based visual novel, so it functions less as a game, than as an immersive story. The experiences of the author in hospital (as briefly related in the author’s notes) provide emotional authenticity to the depiction of hospital life. A well-balanced sentimental thing to make you sad, but with a realistic, all-too-human pair of leading characters.

white box

Download it here:
http://www.mediafire.com/download/ar4geat1mowi08l/White+Box-1.0-win.zip

Or listen to and watch it read online here (albeit in somewhat silly voices):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6V1zLXORyA

3.) The Way We All Go

This one is an epic. You play a short, shy and generally amicable young lad back for the holidays to the small town here he grew up. You haven’t been back for two years. Unfortunately, the last time you left, you didn’t exactly tell everyone that you were leaving. Your tendency to avoid conflict is not your most flattering trait. Even more unfortunately, you have friends with what might be called ‘yandere’ tendencies. Try to let friendship shine and romance blossom! While not getting yourself killed! In many ways, The Way We All Go is a gleefully dark game since there is a perverse pleasure in seeing your rather hapless protagonist bumped off. However, it also has genuine emotional heft and the tragic back-story of one of the characters is portrayed with convincing brutality. Tonally, the game is a curious mix of the breezily light and the gloomily dark, but it all comes together in a very pleasing, coherent fashion. It is also remarkably ambitious, sporting twenty different endings and a myriad of branching paths. As such, it is highly interactive, but some useful built-in systems such as the ability to skip text you’ve already read and a screen that saves a list of the different endings, ensures that it has high replayability value. If you like goofy jokes, light-hearted romance and a bit of the ol’ ultraviolence (although nothing very explicit or gory, just some rather bloody descriptions) I’d thoroughly recommend The Way We All Go. I’d probably give it an age rating of 12 or 15, depending on your mileage.

wayweallgo

Download it here for whatever price you choose:
https://gumroad.com/l/cUlx

It is far longer than most amateur visual novels, with some very cute art (as pictured!) and some gorgeous photoshopped backgrounds. It probably deserves a couple of pounds or more.

A complete walkthrough for the game is here:
http://lemmasoft.renai.us/forums/viewtopic.php?f=55&t=28135

4.) Schoolgirl x Squid

Probably the game that Ebi-Hime is best known for and certainly the goofiest. Anyone who has criticised the game for being too clichéd is missing the point that it’s a light-hearted parody and relentlessly silly. That said, one of the ending still made my friend Peter cry and brought me close to tears, so it’s not all laughs! In short, it is a game in which you date a squid. I like this because it rescues squid-human relationships from the unpleasant and squicky realm of hentai to the world of pure heroine romance. It is also a very educational game in which you will learn fun facts about squids and their uptake. The story doesn’t make a whole bunch of sense and it is important to remember that the main character sometimes sees her pet squid as a teenaged boy (but then, she is lonely and bullied and she is in love with her squid). It’s sort of heart-warming and sort of head-shaking and mostly very entertaining. I certainly enjoyed the experience of getting to date a squid. The art is bright and cheerful C.G.I. and ms paint drawings. It doesn’t look as slick as The Way We All Go, but neither is it meant to. It is however a great deal of fun.

squid

Download it here:
http://www.mediafire.com/download/mndvvxfaru29d6o/Schoolgirl+x+Squid-1.0-win.zip

Be amused by some people on a forum playing it here:
http://brokenforum.com/index.php?threads/lets-play-schoolgirl-x-squid-a-tentacle-romance-for-all-ages.6450/

5.) Mahou Shoujo Žižek-chan!

Goobier and goobier! Mahou Shoujo Žižek-chan! is a game in which you play the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek as a cute 14-year-old magical girl. If you want to know how and why Slavoj Žižek transformed from a cute maiden into a bearded grumpy intellectual, play this game (clue: it’s mostly Jacques Lacan’s fault). Ebi-hime does a good job at making her heroine talk like Žižek, with Žižek’s popular catch-phrases “And so on” and “Whatever whatever” both in use! In truth, this game is not quite the educational master-work of Schoolgirl x Squid, although one will learn the basics of Žižek’s philosophy and pessimistic, misanthropic outlook on life. It is probably 2 parts magical girl to 1 part Žižek. However, it is a game in which you play Slavoj Žižek as a magical girl. This is clearly something that needed to exist and I am glad that Ebi-Hime made it and I am proud to be a friend of the creator of such an illustrious work.

lacan

Download it here:
http://www.mediafire.com/download/vv4u0rgp3xfc74a/Mahou+Shoujo+Zizek-chan%21-1.0-win.zip

For some reason, Mahou Shoujo Žižek-chan! crops up on Steam’s online community. It clearly has some devoted fans… as well it might!!
http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=289787688

So, that about round up Ebi-Hime’s best games. Her new work in the making looks to be as huge and epic as The Way We All Go, but with a fantasy setting. We can but hope there will be slime girls!

Of course, being friends with Ebi-Hime, I have been somewhat biased in my write-up above. But I genuinely people her game-stories are a lot of fun, which a great balance between silliness and emotional weight. Lilly of the Valley in particular hit me hard (I get the impression it was somewhat intended for me, though apparently I’m not quite as bad as the main character, albeit just as melancholic and neurotic… at the very least, the customers who insult him at his call-centre job have been lifted from my own experience!) and I think The Way We All Go is a very impression achievement. I can’t wait to see what someone so prolific and talented produces over the coming years.

Ebi-Hime’s game Tumblr is here:
http://ebi-hime.tumblr.com/

 

Joe (2014)

31 Aug

joe-poster-391x580

I’ve made my complaints previously, so there is little need to reiterate. I went off Cage for a while. I really loathe vigilante films, with few exceptions. Cage played the wronged law-abidin’ citizen protagonist in both Trespass and Seeking Justice in the same year (2011) and I could not be fussed with that noise. But I’ve recuperated and so, it seems, has Cage, because he’s on form in David Gordon Green’s brutal and only moderately overcooked Joe.

*Trigger warning*

I’m not going to spend much time on the subject, but Joe is a card-carrying Serious Movie and, as such, ventures into the territory of sexual violence and incest, without the depth and sincerity that I feel those topic deserve. Certainly, the film is not explicit. But neither is it an easy watch.

Joe is the story of one man’s redemption through his relationship with damaged but plucky 15-year-old boy, Gary (Tye Kayle Sheridan). Gary and his embittered, loathsome father, Wade (Gary Poulter) trek their way across the back-woods of Austin, Texas, with Gary taking jobs to earn money to support his sister and mother – money that Wade invariably steals and drinks away. Gary takes a job with Joe (Cage) hammering poison into the trunks of trees so they can be legally cleared for deforestation. Joe becomes something of a surrogate father figure for Gary but, as an ex-con, he is a man with enemies and a violent temper to keep in check.

So, the story is a furrowed-browed examination of what it means to be a man. The characters are all a little stock Southern Gothic, with scant examination behind the evil that men do, apart from the sense that there are men whose goodness is ossified through poverty and drink. Indeed, as a wounded protector figure, Cage is not miles away from being the vigilante archetype that tends to arouse my suspicions – the bad man less bad than other bad men by virtue of certain masculine-coded qualities (decency; bravery; strength) not possessed by the more feminized villains. The healthy sexuality of the ‘hard man with a heart of gold’ (as illustrated through thrusting, manly heterosexual intercourse) is set against the twisted deviancy of the male antagonists. There is an implication that Wade is an incestuous child rapist and while I was grateful for the lack of exploitative detail in this regard, I never had the sense that his daughter’s victimhood was important for anything other than to illustrate the depths of evil of her father and the comparative righteousness of Cage and his surrogate son.

Which is not to say that Wade is anything other than an entitled, scrawny shit of a man. There is clearly no goodness in him and Poulter’s performance is quietly terrifying. However, for once I’d like to see a film about masculinity in which the hero is somewhat less brooding and muscle-bound and heterosexual, but still a decent human being. Not all deviancy from the norm is evil and an audience can recognise that a man is a nasty piece of work without making him a child rapist to seal the deal. More homosexual action heroes please! Perhaps I am channelling Anita Sarkeesian’s brilliant commentary on gendered violence as background decoration here, but I think it is important not to use incest or rape as little more than flavour text to add a gritty atmosphere to a film and cement the evil of a villain, especially if the emotional and psychological fall-out upon the victim is neglected and ignored. Indeed, in Joe, we see very little of Gary’s mother and sister (Brenda Isaacs Booth and Anna Niemtschk) except glimpses of their perpetual victimhood. The horror of their lives may be accurately portrayed, but I wanted to know more about these characters, who deserved more than being made mere props in other men’s stories.

However, while I have my problems with Joe as a film, Nic was on fine form. The character of Joe is first introduced sitting behind the wheel of his car, his face obscured by a rain-spattered windscreen. This is appropriate, because Joe is a man who chooses to keep his past well hidden. We have discussed here before how Cage is a gestural actor, who resists a lot of the truisms of the Stanislavski or method actor school. He crafts his characters around tics, mannerisms and obsessions, sometimes working through imitation (as in his wonderful Elvis channelling performance in Lynch’s Wild at Heart), often giving external expression emotional states that more traditional, ‘worthier’ actors would leave internal. This isn’t to say that Nic never gets inside the mind of a character, but that he does so with an odd, almost child-like literalism (Ghost Rider listens to The Carpenters and enjoys jelly-beans; Sailor in Wild at Heart loves his snake skin jacket; etc.)

As such, Cage’s performance as Joe signifies emotional depth, without there being any indication of what this depth might entail. It’s all brooding scowl and knotted brow. And yet, this cypher-like quality to Cage’s performance works perfectly. Clearly Joe doesn’t let anyone get too close – the authentic Joe is hidden behind a carefully constructed mask of masculinity. Moreover, this plants a seed of (unintentional?) deconstruction within the performance. The shitty villains of the film seem to be play-acting their masculinity and they are no good at it. Joe’s main antagonist is a leering hyper-aggressive pervert called Willie (hah!) who is always spoiling for a fight. However, when push literally comes to shove, not only is he a rubbish brawler easily bested by a 15-year-old boy, but his expression of masculinity comes across as weirdly inauthentic, desperate. Almost every time he pops up in a scene he asserts with laughable grandiosity “I went through a windshield and I don’t give a fuck!” It fails to impress.

Likewise, old man Wade mostly beats up his young son and succeeds only in killing a poor, destitute homeless man, who can offer no resistance to his assault. It is not that he is all bark and no bite, but that his bite is solely directed at those much weaker than himself. He is a bully and his attempt at body-popping break-dancing moves also exposes him as dangerously uncool. As Stella Papamichael writes in her review for Digital Spy:

“Violence is offered as an integral part of masculine identity. Joe and Gary both share the philosophy that sometimes a man’s gotta do… Wade is an example of where it is completely unnecessary and sometimes downright evil (eventually spiralling into a shocking scene from leftfield) while another cowardly loudmouth (Ronnie Gene Blevins) tries to up his currency in town by playing the hard man.” 

So, where does this leave Cage’s masculinity, so triumphant and righteous in Con Air? On the bar-room floor. Joe is a man gone to seed, whose masculinity has been humbled, who has had to learn how to channel his manly anger. There is a genuine pathos to Joe’s job as a man who poisons trees, striking blows with a hammer against the strong, weary forest. The trees, firm and irresolute, are the pinnacle of phallic masculine – yet how easily are they poisoned, how sad and old they look. It is difficult to say whether Joe is jealous of the trees, or whether he senses in them kindred spirits to match his own. Notably, while both Joe and the resilient young Gary are able to poison the trees (and do so with serious vigour, energy and violence) nasty old Wade is badly able to raise a hand against them. He strikes his son instead.

Joe is given to the moody brooding, that has a certain existentialist quality, that could be read either as the defeated wisdom of manly experience, or the nihilistic angst of a petulant teenager. Replying to the soothing susurrus of a lover he says, with a frustrated weariness, “I like you too, but what’s the point in any of it?” And yet there are moments in which happiness catches him off-guard, against his better judgement. The most playful, Cageiest sequence in the film involves Joe and Gary doing a bit of father-son bonding, drinking and driving together as buddies, off in pursuit of Joe’s loyal bulldog (who, like Joe, is seemingly ferocious but with a heart of gold). This gives Cage room for some goofy improvisation and that winsome, toothy smile of his breaks through. He’s like the hero from a Johnny Cash song, beaten down but possessed of spirited dark humour in spite of it all. My favourite part of this manly buddy-bonding sequence was when Joe shows Gary how to make ‘the pain face’. This involves smiling, but allowing the pain to show through underneath. You give a big grin but keep the pain in the eyes. It was like a little acting lesson from Cage, teaching the younger actor, the rather brilliant Tye Kayle Sheridan, one of the tricks of the trade. The manufacture of the synthetic mask of manly pain. I sometimes like making this face myself! Give it a go sometime!

Cage looks old (although not creepy or smarmy) in Joe. He is in his 50s now – getting on. Although it would be absurd for me to say that Nicolas Cage is my cinematic father, with Birdy (1984) he heralded me into the world of adult films. I was only 13 or 14 at the time, younger than the character of Gary. In the Coens’ Raising Arisona from 1987 Cage had a Thrush Muffler bird tattoo, signifying his speed, youth and cartoony acting style. In Joe, Cage has the tattoo of a wildcat, faded and grown over with white hair.

My Top 10 Videogames as of August 2014

9 Aug

I’ve been holding off a Cage resurrection for a year or two now, but with the upcoming release of Joe, which I already have booked to see, it seems that the Man of the Taut Face will be returning very soon indeed. In the meantime, I thought that I would provide you all with a list of my favourite games of all time (as of the moment of writing). Frankly, this is much easier to compile than a list of my favourite films of all time, since most games are absolutely terrible! In no particular order, then:

#10 Super Smash Brothers (N64, Nintendo, 1999)

The cornerstone of the relationship between my brother and I, Super Smash Bros. is a little different to your regular fighting game (Street Fighter; Tekken; Dead or Alive; etc.) since the characters are often dwarfed by their environments, meaning that game-play is as much about platforming and long-range weapons as it is close-quarter fighting. That said, this is a fighting game, but it’s deceptively simple. Keeping track of frame data and memorising long button combinations won’t be of much help here since you’re mostly reliant on the A and B buttons, a joystick direction, a throw, a jump and a shield – plus any extra items or weapons that you manage to acquire. As such, the game play is mainly about learning your opponent’s fighting style as well as the strengths and weaknesses of your own and other characters. In one-on-one games this means there is a lot of wary distance keeping, although with 4 players in the mix things tend to turn into an all out brawl. In the later instalments in the series overly complex levels and general business means the screen becomes easily cluttered making play confusing and chaotic; however, in the N64 original, things are kept fairly sparse and it is easy to keep track of what is going on. My brother was mainly Samus (or Link) and I was mainly Yoshi (or Kirby) since my brother liked fast-play, darting back and forth, while I preferred to lurk about on the tops of trees and platforms and attempt aerial attacks. This must have been agonising for any friends who came over who didn’t own a copy of the game (and it was always more fun as a multiplayer – playing alone felt sad and mechanical) since they’d just be unfairly pummelled, but I genuinely believe that my relationship with my brother wouldn’t be half as fond if it weren’t for long sessions fighting together on the N64.

Of course, all the characters are from Nintendo games (mostly obvious choices but as an English gamer Ness from Earthbound was completely unfamiliar to me) so a certain fondness for the company probably helps enjoyment. There was a certain thrill to seeing beloved characters beat the stuffing out of each other, especially when they were meant to be allies, brothers or generally amicable. There was lots of fun to be had pausing the game at particularly pugilistic moments. The graphics were vectory, but the art was colourful and appealing. The music – often stemming from previous Nintendo classics – was uniformly excellent and added greatly to the concept of a holistic Nintendo universe. The latter games are pretty shameless about this branded self-mythologising, but it didn’t appear offensive in the original.

Finally, while the game is perfect to pick-up-and-play it has a surprising amount of depth, lending itself to tournament play. Since the game is so airy and bright, it doesn’t feel like a slog to practise with and it’s unlikely to turn you into a homicidal maniac (Mortal Kombat), a stats geek (Tekken) or a pervert (Dead or Alive).

smash bros

#9 Worms Armageddon (N64 and PC, Team17, 1999)

The Worms games are curious little beasts, violent but goofy. Your team consists of a little squadron of worms and your aim is to destroy the other teams of worms with a melange of ludicrous and deadly weapons. The original game was intended as a parody of the gulf war and is surprisingly bleak in atmosphere and graphics. You wage your battles over blasted terrain while the desolate howl of wind churns in the background. It’s very effective but Team17 clearly realised that a lighter, more cartoony aesthetic would make their series more appealing.

As such, Worms Armageddon is a thoroughly daffy affair, with squidgy semi-anthropomorphized worms with a host of dubiously stereotyped comedic accents. To be honest, the comedy leaves me a little cold, but the gameplay is – personally speaking – unrivalled among multi-player games. For a game with such a daft premise, there is a surprising degree of tactical depth to Worms. The design is elegant and simply. The gameplay is turn based. You can either choose to defensively burrow your worms away or protect them with girders, or else fire bazookas, homing missiles and grenades towards the enemy in the hope that they’ll hit. Of course, a good player strategically balances these two approaches.

The game comes together when players start to pre-plan their moves and combine weapons to achieve outlandish aims. One might build a structure with girders across a couple of turns, use a ninja rope to pull a worm up to the structure, then drop a grenade down upon an enemy worm below. More delightful, is when a perfectly orchestrated plan comes to nought due to a shift in the wind, or a wrong button accidentally pressed. I’ve never played a game in which disastrous wrong moves are so hilarious. In short, it’s a competitive game that rarely engenders bad feelings. It is a lot of fun to play, rewards practice and includes imaginative weapons such as flying super sheep (with capes) and holy hand grenades. As long as one does not mind war being taken with a liberal pinch of salt, then it stands alongside Heroes of Might and Magic as the peak of turn-based multi-player gaming.

worms

#8 Simon the Sorcerer (PC, Adventuresoft, 1993)

This was absolutely my favourite game as a child and it retains a lot of charm. You play Simon, a snarky teenaged wizard voiced by Chris Barrie from Red Dwarf. You traverse a magical land full of slightly disreputable stock fantasy characters in order to save the world and return home. There’s a self-effacing banality-cum-smallness to proceedings that never undercuts the magic of the high fantasy, which is a tricky balance to achieve and pulled off wonderfully. Because of this Simon the Sorcerer reminds me most of the Discworld book series by Terry Pratchett, which I also lapped up when I was in my pre-adolescence. There is less social satire and pub philosophy in Simon than in the Discworld books, but it feels equally affable and good-natured, despite the occasional moment of slapstick violence or innuendo. In this sense, it carries on a British seaside tradition that ranges from pantomime to Monty Python. It feels like the creators are only ever play acting at being rude or squalid, which never quite tips over into the genuinely nasty Punch & Judy or The Meaning of Life (I’m fond of both, but neither could be said to be wholesome).

The puzzles tend towards the lateral rather than the logic. There are a certain amount of object collection quests, but generally puzzles are a matter of inventively using an object in your inventory upon an object in the environment. Such puzzles have come in for a great deal of scorn over the last decade, but personally I think they play a vital part in the immersion these games provide. You are required to actively engage with your environment, remaining ever alert for useful objects, or places where objects might come in useful. It empowers the imaginative to be able to transform objects to your own curious purposes – using a watermellon to block up a sousaphone, for instance. It helps divest objects of their labels and allows you to see them more in terms of their qualities – weight; texture; taste; shape – than their utilitarian function. It this sense, classic adventure games are engaged in a transformative surrealist agenda – stripping objects of tired associations for radical re-purposings! I suspect that my love of stop-motion artists like Jan Švankmajer derives partly from my early experiences with adventure games.

The host of colourful characters you meet in the game are brought to life with wonderfully lively voice acting and some genuinely beautiful pixel art. The game looks hand crafted and there is a real sense of a living, breathing environment, even with the limited graphics. The forest scenes remain especially vivid in my memory and the rinky-dink MIDI music helped cement these images in my mind.

I imagine that if I discovered Simon the Sorcerer today, rather than as a 12-year-old, I would be considerably less besotted. However, the fact of the matter is that I was lucky enough to discover this charming game at an early age and it was an essential part of my childhood, for which I will always be thankful to Adventuresoft, even in spite of the hideous disappointment of Simon the Sorcerer 3D.

simon

#7 Pacman (Arcade, Namco, 1980)

“Video games are the first stage in a plan for machines to help the human race, the only plan that offers a future for intelligence. For the moment, the inseparable philosophy of our time is contained in the Pac-Man. I didn’t know when I was sacrificing all my hundred yen coins to him that he was going to conquer the world. Perhaps because he is the most perfect graphic metaphor of man’s fate. He puts into true perspective the balance of power between the individual and the environment. And he tells us soberly that though there may be honor in carrying out the greatest number of victorious attacks, it always comes a cropper.” (Chris Marker, Sans Soleil)

pacman-revealed.preview

#6 The Games of Stephen Lavelle (PC, 2004-2014)

I have a deep fondness for aggressively pretentious arty queer micro-games. Stephen Lavelle (increpare) is probably my favourite creator. With his stuff, it’s probably best just to immerse yourself Blue Jam listening style at 3.00 a.m. and binge, but I highly recommend his minimalist-formalist stuff and the grim and powerful games around violence. If the name of a game suggests a trigger warning might be needed, you’ll probably be right. I don’t know how much he respects his players. He clearly thinks in games though, in terms of systems and mathematical elegance. He’s not just taking ideas from film or literature and shoehorning them into an interactive narrative in a desperate bid for arty kudos. Nasty, tiny, elegant little things.

http://www.increpare.com/

To my first born son – deconstruct the house of patriarchy!

Slave of God is a glitchcore club simulator and should almost definitely not be played if you have photosensitive epilepsy. Puts the willies up me.

Puzzles is a work of very clever design and an example of Lavelle’s formalism at its best.

Promises is an eerie little logic game like a quiet nightmare of an Amiga game.

Oíche Mhaith reminds me of Blue Jam in that it is a little daft and glib, but also simultaneously moving. Exploitative but earnest. I am not sure about its characterisation of the Irish family. Deeply, shatteringly sad, but ridiculous.

Untris – backwards Tetris.

American Dream – the dark heart of capitalism! Now 200x more addictive! Collect stuff! Buy shares in celebrities! Do insider trading at wild sex parties! The Wonder Showzen of games!

whale of noise – a genuinely relaxing and meditative underwater experience using tones.

Hush – a clever little experiential metaphor. Play it.

The Terrible Whiteness of Appalachian Nights – really troubled me. Trigger warning. Juddery. Serious warning – don’t play if you are feeling delicate.

Therapy Game – a tiny little narrative game. Slight but worth while for 2 mins.

Theatrics – absolutely brilliant. Puzzles can be solved either through narratology or through logic, but really shows how the former is dependent on the latter. Not really a story creation tool, though that’s what it looks like. Quiet the opposite, in fact. Really like this one.

Home – an empathetic experiment in very limited interaction. I like it, but many don’t.

Almudy Park – a very limited adventure game, but a sad one.

Judith – deservedly famous. A first person retelling of Bluebeard that looks like Doom.

Opera Omnia – I think this one is really intelligent and just beyond me somehow.

(Also of them are worth playing although Brain Damage is genuinely very nasty and sub/conscious, while using Google as a clever metaphor in action for deviant desires, hijacks your computer to search for increasingly inappropriate / illegal pornography, which I think is unethical)

#5 Monkey Island 1, 2 and 3 (PC, Lucasarts, 1990, 1991 and 1997)

The most wonderful sea-salty adventures with wit and charm and giddy humour galore! You play Guybrush Threepwood, a slightly hapless yet plucky young pirate, as he seeks fame and fortune on a bunch of eclectic islands. He’s an absolutely amicable character and these games are filled filled with good-natured jokes and curious, semi-logical puzzles. The graphics became increasingly lush over the three games, with the third game The Curse of Monkey Island standing out as a triumph of art design.

Each installement has its own unique charms. The Secret of Monkey Island is the most tightly plotted and introduces some of the series’ most famous staples, such as insult sword fighting. Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge is the darkest and strangest, with a mind-warping ending that felt deeply wrong and unsettling when I first placed it many, many years ago. The Curse of Monkey Island is the lightest and most laid-back and was the first in the series to introduce voice acting.

The first two games have been re-released for PC and Wii with additional voice acting and updated graphics so if you are yet to play them, you have a joyous few days of gaming ahead!

Finally, the music in all three games is exemplary. The opening theme song still brings shivers up my spine.

#4 Photopia (PC, Adam Cadre, 1998)

Arguably Photopia is more of an immersive story than a game, since it is utterly linear and it contains no puzzles. However, the medium (in this case, that of parser-based interactive fiction) is essential to the experience of the work as one leaps between the consciousness of different characters to better understand a terrible, unseen tragedy at the story’s heart. You circle around this tragedy at different levels of intimacy and distance and through this experience you grow to understand the work’s central protagonist.

Cadre, who writes in a slightly heightened form of naturalism, is great at quickly plunging you into different worlds and bodies to inhabit. Voices are clear and recognizable. The small worlds are easily mapped. The whole game is colour-coded in primary red, greens and blues, which works beautifully thematically, structurally and symbolically and is tied together by the story’s end.

Personally, I find it a deeply moving, humanistic work. It was my first experience with interactive fiction as a young adult after years away from playing text-only adventure games as a young child and rekindled my interest in the medium. It replies on simply verb-noun combinations which might be confusing to a novice player, but Cadre provides a useful help section, so really Photopia should be accessible to any player willing to put forward just a little bit of work.

Cadre’s later games are also brilliant. Varicella is a nasty historic farce, with a gratifying puzzle design, though it takes many, many playthroughs to complete. Shrapnel was a little rushed to completion, but is intoxicatingly atmospheric and very clever. Endless; Nameless is a fascinating meta-fictional reflection on the evolution of the medium and is a sophisticated work of considerable intellectual and emotional depth. However, Photopia is why Cadre is known and beloved.

Please play it here: http://pr-if.org/play/photopia/

#3 Pathologic (PC, Ice-Pick Lodge, 2005)

A maddening, horrible, angst-inducing experience. Pathologic is a grim, Russian survival sim about attempting to survive a plague, fighting against the inexorable forward march of death. The translation is terrible, which gives dialogue its own warped poetry. The graphics are limited, which means that fog obscured everything and faces are uncanny, which is absolutely how things should be. It is  very, very hard and involves a lot of walking. Personally, I find it to be the single most atmospheric game I’ve ever played. The town feels contaminated. Abject. The soundtrack is sublime. Odd chants and percussive noises. In short, Pathologic is like a more talky, art-house rigorously existentialist Silent Hill 2. Ice-Pick Lodge are currently developing a more polished version but in many ways I don’t even know if I want to play a more polished version.

pathologic

7-21.groupshot1

I would highly recommend buying Pathologic here even if to play it through with a walkthrough.

#2 Grim Fandango (PC, Lucasarts, 1998)

The most sublime, classy, stylish game I have ever had the privilege to play. You journey through an art-deco underworld of sassy, louche skeletons as Manuel “Manny” Calavera, travel agent to the dead. There are many memorably, zany characters, but really it’s the atmosphere that stays with you, especially Rubacava, a city of jazz bars, petty gangsters and cat racing.

With a few exceptions, the puzzles are gratifying and make sense. The locations are a joy to explore and inhabit. The music is slinky and impossibly cool. The graphics may seem limited today, but the ‘Day of the Dead’ inspired art designs ensures that the boxiness looks deliberate and stylish, not crummy.

It’s a game I feel a little bit emotional describing, such are my fond feelings towards it. Really, it is a masterpiece. A masterpiece in spite of clunky controls and a few illogical puzzles (although, frankly, logic is over-rated).

If one is not a gamer, it would be well-worth simply watching it through as a movie. I would love to see a stop-motion version directed by Henry Selick one day.

blue_casket

grin_fandango

#1 Half-Life 2 (PC, Valve, 2004)

I do not enjoy first-person shooters. I don’t like killing people and I find the mechanic dull and repetitive. So, it’s something of a small miracle that Half-Life 2 is my favourite game of all time. Simply, it is a masterpiece of design. Everything is so carefully considered and plotted. As Gordon Freeman, I kept wanting to keep pushing the story forward. The world had been over-run with a cruel alien intelligence and I knew that as a Black Mesa employee I was partly to blame. As Freeman you spend months (maybe years) underground, given weapons and help by a hidden stream of shadowy, fatigued comrades, only to emerge overground in glimpses to catch fragments of the devastation to the planet and the human resistance fighting back.

The game doesn’t play like a beef-headed macho fantasy though. There are long reflective passages and periods of experimenting quietly with gravity and levers. The action is violent and intense, but not brain-dead. The fascistic cruelty of the aliens is firmly established. Valve don’t just reply upon an a-priori hatred of Nazis or the Vietcong or Iraqis to justify the bloodshed. You start the game disempowered. Without the weapon. You are subject to bullying, beating and tedious queuing. When you finally find a crowbar, you feel convincingly justified in fighting back. You are put in the position of the oppressed, rather than the oppressors.

Indeed, Valve are brilliant at gratifying power reversal. Making the player feel disempowered, only to reverse the situation at the optimum moment. There is a weapon in the game called a gravity gun. You can pick up objects with it and fire them. For a while, it is the bane of your life. Then you get hold of one. Likewise, in a level in which you traverse great stretches of beach, laying down planks of driftwood to carefully walk across to avoid touching the sand, the creatures that live beneath – sandlions – are your mortal enemy. They are skittish and terrifying. Then you get a bulbous seed-pod and can control an army of sandlions. The tides have turned.

In short, it is a wonderfully well-balanced game. The story is simple, tight but compelling. The action is engaging. The characters convincing. It is a very polished game and I have put it as #1 because, even while it may not be my personal favourite game, I can think of no way I would improve it. My personal experience with the game was flawless.

Here is my friend Hamish talking very eloquently about part of the design of Half Life 2:

http://www.destructoid.com/untold-riches-the-brilliance-of-half-life-s-barnacles-233589.phtml

This list is by no means inclusive.

In terms of sardonic, bloody-minded fun Bullfrog’s wonderful Theme Park (1994), Theme Hospital (1997) and Dungeon Keeper 2 (1999) have kept me entertained for hours. Theme Hospital in particular is bracingly cynical and has a very inventive host of diseases and conditions to treat – slack tongue; bloaty head syndrome; an illness that makes its sufferers impersonate Elvis. It even includes a mini-game in which you get to shoot rats!

theme hospital

I’m also very fond of many classic adventure games. In terms of Lucasarts’ output, Day of the Tentacle (1993) has some of the most sophisticated puzzle design, involving sending objects into the past and into the future to complete puzzles. It is also cheerily dystopian and edutaining on the topic of American history! Sam and Max Hit the Road (1993) was revelatory for me as a child, with its arch commentary on naff American consumerism and tacky tourist destinations. It’s meta-commentary on the medium of the adventure games was often surprisingly savage, with great little in-jokes for connoisseurs of the genre. Finally, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992) holds its own against the films, while Full Throttle (1995) is highly cinematic and felt thrillingly adult as a child.

sam max

In terms of non-Lucasarts games, I only played Jordan Mechner’s The Last Express (1997) last year, but I found it was fascinating and involved. The time period of the eve of the First World War was convincingly realised and the art nouveau train interior – the setting of the game – was elegant, rich and gilded. The conversation was sophisticated and the mechanic of having everything occur in real-time gave a sense of immediacy and anxiety to proceedings. It was also wonderfully morally nuanced, with even the playable character on the run from the law for a political murder. The Neverhood (1996) is as tactile and doughy as the soaps from Lush. The Christian sub-text is interesting rather than irritating and the technicolour world of clay feels fully realised. The music, which is a nonsense, squidgy, mush-mouthed blues, is fantastic. Sadly, the creator seems to be a homophobe, which I’m glad I didn’t know at the time, but has put me off emotionally (or financially) investing in the coming sequel. Sanitarium (1998) is nutty and ambitious, with some hilarious B-movie dialogue… “Cyclops babies! In bottles?!” It doesn’t add up to much, but what fun! Machinarium (2009) is a haywire, lovingly-crafted delight, with a specifically Czech charm. It is heart-warming and beautiful. Finally, although I find much of Sierra’s output po-faced and nit-pitcky, Police Quest II: The Vengeance was enjoyably hard-boiled and a joy to play with my friend Jen. The game felt gritty, but not nihilistic, and it left me with a weird respect for law enforcement I had never felt before. In a very different vein, King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder and King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow are colourful, pleasing games that make the hours fly by. The latter is arguably the best game Sierra ever released.

neverhood

Machinarium-ss

In terms of experimental indie titles, I am loathe to call Jason Rohrer’s Sleep is Death (Geisterfahrer) a game per se, since it really functions as a game creation tool-kill. Essentially it allows one to play custom built two-player stories, with one person controlling just the playable character, with the other person controls all the NPCs and the backgrounds. It is something that could be done with pen and paper and, in fact, is essentially a very loose form of table-top role-playing. However, the experience of improvising together with a friend over two computers is a thrilling and often hilarious one. Playing it with my friends led to many memorable adventures involving hungry wolves, a sad-sack comedian, a suicide at a business conference, and many others. If anyone reading this would like to play Sleep is Death with me, I’d love to.

http://sleepisdeath.net/

I still have a big place in my heart for text-only games and interactive fiction. Emily Short’s games are always deeply humanistic and touching. Her interactive story Bee about a young spelling Bee champion is one of my favourites. Andrew Plotkin’s Shade is the best interactive episode of the Twilight Zone one might imagine. Porpentine is a rare techno-genius and her games deserve to be in the list, but they defy easy description and I am a coward. Howling Dogs and their angelic understanding map a pathway to the future. I earnestly recommend them without caveat.

http://aliendovecote.com/intfic.html

I have previously made two other lists of games if you, dear reader, enjoyed this post.

Here is my list of my favourite games on GOG.com which can be bought and downloaded directly from the site: http://www.gog.com/mix/peculiar_and_original_games

Here is my list of some of the weirdest games of all-time, some of which are free. Do, by all means, investigate: http://www.listchallenges.com/weirdest-video-games

Of course, after all that, we all really know that the best game of all time is The Life of D Duck.

lodd-3

 

P.S. A reminder from my friend Alex Maisey that I should have included Valve’s wonderful Portal (2007) which is a brilliant example of a game doing something unthinkable in another medium – allowing you to experience space in a different way. Likewise, Jonathan Blow’s Braid (2008) helped me to understand the concept of non-linear time / time travel better than anything since Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaugherhouse 5 as a young teen.

Shameless Self-Promotion

21 Feb

I don’t feel too good about doing this, but desperate times call for disparate messages and this is the most dispassionate of all!!

Basically, my band ‘Gout Pony’, are in the running for winning the ‘Strangest Band in the World’ (*ahem*oftheweek*ahem*) competition, but seem to be tripping at the last hurdle! ‘Astro Al’ is a pretty good band name and they have gas masks, but I do not think they have a pun as good as our album title ‘Gout Pony’s Family Gouting’ (attributable to Jay, co-owner of this site).

The album is here:
http://goutpony.bandcamp.com/album/a-family-gouting

And you can vote for us here:
http://weirdestbandintheworld.com/2014/02/16/february-weird-band-poll-vote-for-astro-al-ebola-ape-gout-pony-iris-von-gul-or-potworow/

If you do so, you have my sincerest thanks. I do not know if Nic would like our music, but I would like to think so.

– Adam