By Mento 8 Comments
Excepting the brief jaunts that have taken over my recent blogging habits (I can see why LPers have so much fun making those things), the three games I played for any meaningful amount of time this week were Grasshopper's Lollipop Chainsaw, 2K and Indie Built's Amped 3 and the You Don't Know Jack Facebook game by Jellyvision. My reception of all three vary between a strong hatred to genial amusement. However, the main factor that links the three is actually bemusement: That pervasive sense of sheer madcappery and hijinx that all three have purposely directed their respective games' atmospheres towards eliciting.
I'm generally OK with absurdism, especially in video games. However, an unfortunate and undeniable facet of the form is that it can be very hit or miss, due largely to the subjective nature of humor in general but also because those who deal in that particular field of entertainment are often incognizant of a well-hidden set of rules in what seems like an entirely anarchic medium of expression. Put simply, there is usually method in the madness; a sort of backbone that grounds the absurdism to the point where it can still be appreciated in full, but doesn't constantly enervate or annoy those it's attempting to entertain because it makes no effort to include them in the fun. Usually this is done with the role of the "straight man"; that one character who has been thrust into this world, retains some degree of rationality and has little idea what is going on - ostensibly mirroring the position of the viewer. With games this narrative construct is easier, because the ideal straight man is the player character itself.
However, you then have the ways that absurdism can fall flat on its face: The first is when there is no reprieve, no grounding of the insanity. What you're then looking at is someone's fever dream that they've decided to put to celluloid (or optical disc or executable file or what have you) and nothing is more exhausting and pointless than listening to someone describe their dreams. For instance! I once dreamt I was a Ghost Buster fighting the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man at the end of the first movie, and when I woke up my pillow had been incinerated by proton pack fire. (And for the rest of this blog I'm leaving the jokes to the experts.) Of course, the second is when it's not all that funny or weird, or at least not to a sufficient degree that would make the absurdism element work.
This blog will look at the three games I mentioned, how I felt about them in general and how I felt their absurdist "charms" (as it will occasionally require the scare quotes in a case or two) either help or hinder the game's entertainment value. I'll probably think of a few more examples of games I've played in the past that really went for broke when being as surreal as possible for the sake of humor (or melodrama, in the case of cavia). I'm actually kind of curious about why some examples of absurdist humor work and why some do not, though I don't expect to draw any firm conclusions today.
Lollipop Chainsaw has a fantastic pedigree when it comes to absurdist artforms of the past; You have noted insanity-peddler Goichi "Suda51" Suda with his background of truly odd games like Killer7 and No More Heroes. You have James Gunn, he of Slither and Super and Tromeo & Juliet (and hey, that he's written a violent b-movie involving a girl named Juliet is kind of telling). There's also music from noted lyrical oddball Jimmy Urine (of Mindless Self Indulgence) and a bevvy of dumb gags, pop culture references, the occasional germane licensed music track and the central premise of a high school cheerleader who kills zombies with a chainsaw alongside her monster hunting family and the decapitated head of her rather discombobulated normal guy boyfriend.
Problem is, most of these absurdist elements are either way too easy or simply don't work: A zombie hunting cheerleader is suspiciously (but almost certainly purposefully) close to a vampire hunting cheerleader, Toni Basil's "Hey Mickey" playing every time she uses a special power (and The Chordettes' "Lollipop" at the store), a hippie zombie obsessed with hallucinogenics, a funky zombie who speaks entirely in auto-tune (didn't we JUST have a character who did that?), having Nick respond to everything with some variant of "oh man, that's fucked up!", "Pac-Man Fever" playing in a stage full of arcade game-inspired sequences (which in turn have been done plenty of times before, notably in Suda 51 games), jokes about space cakes, German porn, getting roofie'd and molested by the local priest, lady cops diddling themselves with their own nightsticks, Juliet's manic little sister Rosalind dressed like Cyndi Lauper for some reason, the end boss being a gigantic fat Elvis, Juliet wistfully recalling the time she once wiped out "a whole tribe of Frankenberries" and so on. Obviously your mileage may vary (as does mine, as I actually found some of that previous list kind of funny) but the parade of goofy and/or obvious references and jokes just started to grate after not very long at all. It doesn't help that the game isn't the most well put-together character action game that's come out in recent memory either (it controls about as well as DMC 2 or Dante's Inferno, which is to say "just barely"), so the jokes have an uphill battle trying to bring a smile to the face of a player frustrated by the poor controls. I could enjoy Suda's previous game Shadows of the Damned despite a similar degree of roughness around the edges, but in the back of my mind I could hear a telltale faint scraping of the undermost layer of a cylindrical wooden object possibly used to contain rainwater or some other perishable liquid.
I'm probably being too harsh on this game. I spent way longer with it than is probably healthy, so there's definitely some amount of despondency from hearing the same gags over and over, but even so. I can't imagine James Gunn took the whole affair seriously, or at least as seriously as he could possibly take his work writing B-movies (which I imagine is quite a bit, to give the guy some credit at least). Overall it just felt like a damp squib and prompted me to wonder, out loud on the internet in this here blog, if the fine art of absurdism is done.
Now Amped 3 is an entirely different creature and one that feels far less forced. Tthere's a definite sense of DIY tomfoolery going on which earns it a lot more points in its favor. But hey, I'm getting ahead of myself here.
Amped 3 is a snowboarding sports game by Indies Built, notable for being one of the Xbox 360's launch titles. My interest in this game began with a certain all-encompassing Quick Look that Jeff and Ryan put together to honor the incidental insanity of what is otherwise a perfectly functional if a little repetitive snowboarding game in the vein of SSX or a more wintry-themed Skate. Any given extreme sports game will have some sort of youth-focused prerogative to have fun or chillax or gag themselves with a spoon or whatever they're into this decade as well as a consistent healthy distrust for The Establishment. Amped 3 elevates itself above the crowd of highschool-aged, pop-punk-driven extreme sports contemporaries with its absolutely nonsense plot about an evil overlord taking over all media and one snowboarder's quest to stop him while scoring some sweet air with their personality-diverse crew. The game's presentation is schizophrenic to say the least, with various missions framed by 8-bit samurais, a psychedelic gentleman and a mangled Fire Emblem portrait sprite and that doesn't even begin to cover the plethora of action figure, video game, comic book, anime and hand puppet oriented cutscenes that intermittently spring themselves on the unsuspecting player.
I'm not sure why this works better than Lollipop Chainsaw (at least for me, though can we assume "your mileage may vary" is in full and constant effect for the rest of this blog so I don't have to repeat it?) but I suspect it's because there's a huge variance of material and a lack of trying to impress you with it. So much of the framework seems to have been put together with pipe-cleaner and chewing gum, occasionally literally, giving it an infectiously fun homespun feeling of a bunch of dudes fucking around with whatever cameras and props they have handy. Sort of like this website, in fact. The humor is entirely inherent in its presentation, rather than trying to hit you over the head with references and gags. The gags that are there tend to be of the "so deliberately dumb they're funny" variety, a form of humor I revisit frequently myself and thus cannot really denigrate. It's not high art by any stretch, but it does a sterling job of presenting concentrated dementia in a form that the player can enjoy at their leisure.
You Don't Know Jack!
Ostensibly a pop trivia game with a heavy topical North American culture bent, You Don't Know Jack separates itself from the crowd (but not the madding crowd) by the deliberately abstruse way it frames each of its questions. Like with Amped 3, the venerable CD-ROM trivia franchise was brought to my attention by Giant Bomb and its Quick Look of the recent console version of YDKJ, but the games themselves aren't easily accessible to Europeans like myself. It wasn't until I heard about the Facebook game, which are truncated five-round quizzes that accrue daily (or in large packs via some direct purchases, a system favored by many Facebook games), that I really started to get obsessed with this hilarious franchise.
Though not the first host, the irascible and impulsive Cookie Masterson (voiced with remarkable timing by Tom Gottlieb) seems to have become the de facto emcee of the YDKJ experience for the time being. Each of his questions are presented with a little bit of pre-amble that gives nothing away, before launching into a simple question of general knowledge framed in an utterly recondite manner that will without fail throw you for a loop the first time you play the game. You can see several instances of this in the QL posted above, such as introducing the question of "which Lady rode naked through Coventry?" as a Lady Gaga stunt or asking what follows in the The Kübler-Ross Model of stages of grief as dictated by a hypothetical line of "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter" products. The trivia difficulty is quite real and on par with anything you might expect from Trivial Pursuit (though obviously with way more references to MTV dreck), so it occasionally feels like you're being challenged twicefold with some of the left-fielders it hurls at you.
The Facebook game, which I've become intimately familiar with after a few dozen games of varying score quality, has a few bonus rounds that buck the traditions (for YDKJ, at least) of the normal questions. "Dis or Dat", "Funky Trash", "Gibberish Question" and especially the game-finishing round of "Jack Attack" seem intended to be as disorienting and perplexing as possible. The absurdism in this case is very much engineered to work against the player - occasionally confusing them so much that they'll get general knowledge questions wrong that they actually knew the answer to - but because the game has a brilliant sense of humor much of it can be forgiven. A game actively rooting against you is nothing new, after all, and when you're in a competition with other human beings of a similarly rational mind you are all at an equal disadvantage.
And with that, I think I've talked enough about crazy video games for the time being. What games with an absurdist bent have you enjoyed/disliked in the past, either because of or in spite of the absurdist elements (Saints Row, Saints Row, Saints Row)? Any dissenting opinions on the three games mentioned? Tell me about your dreams?! If no comments are forthcoming, then let me just thank all of you for reading. And now, to give the people whose jokes I've insulted a chance to reciprocate, it's...
You Don't Know Jack!