Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist

…and other mind fucks. Happily for me while compiling a list of weird games for a lecture, a discussion opened up on Something Awful on that very topic. Pleased to see that I had already nominated some of the finest, and also to learn of new wonders to behold.

First: this promo for Octodad is something I will forever treasure in my heart. Video art.

The game itself simulates an octopus in a suit attempting to convince people that it’s a completely normal dad; mind numbingly difficult, pathetic and wonderfully spiteful. I’m more into their using a messed up ’tilted cart’ version of  the game as the sales pitch –  it instantly holds an unreasonable position.

Randy Balma probably started just as a simulation of repeatedly driving a school bus into oncoming traffic high on mushrooms, but as the high highs higher it launches a rocket propelled Big Ben into collisions with space junk. Messhof (Mark Essen) has followed an Art Game path since graduation in 2008 – his latest Nidhogg won big in the 2011 Game Developers Conference. But to my mind he’s lost that intense distaste for all life that marked Randy Balma’s contribution to civilisation. Which I share.

I hadn’t heard of The Adventures of D. Duck before. Apart from appearing to be designed by a traumatised 6 year old it’s a reasonably standard point and click adventure starring grossly deformed animals.

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But if you are going to truly Adventure, then go straight to the obsessive compulsive side of the field – the outsider Role Playing Games. Queen of the pack is Dream Diary, hatched by ‘Kikiyama’ in 2005. Like nearly all such outsider RPGs it’s built on RPG Maker, a Japanese authoring kit for depressingly similar landscapes of castles and armed dwarves. Dream Diary, or Yume Nikki probably first gained praise for eschewing all dwarves – which grew wildly when players realised that the AUTHOR IS PROFOUNDLY DISTURBED. Maybe.

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Definitely.

For a game where you spend most of your time lost in an 8 bit pixelated nightmare it’s created a rabid community of fans who are obsessed with every aspect of the hero girl Windowed (‘is she a transexual?’), her tiny apartment that she can only leave when asleep (‘post traumatic stress’) and the vaguely threatening wildlife that live in her dreams. Like the ‘Bird People’:

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All of whom look like Julia Gillard, but are said by fans to represent childhood tormentors. They’re harmless unless you stab them in which case they’ll confine you to dreams where the only escape is to wake up. The subject of most fan obsession is a cross eyed piano player who looks a little like Michael Jackson meets Ryuichi Sakamoto who crash lands a space ship on Mars so …

Hell, it’s too complicated. Just watch this small bit.

I don’t particularly like RPGs (not into dwarves) but I’m currently working through a French one called OFF. This one has more traditional heroes and battles, but your main character is a baseball batter, aided by angelic hoops and guided by a pretentious cat judge. I managed to get through a city made of meat fountains and fought against a giant bird which lives inside another cat. I’m told it’ll all make sense if I can get to the end of it. It’s that promise of hidden knowledge that drives me on (and probably why people become Scientologists). I’m just a bit tired of fighting whales in the shopping centre.

Normally I choose peaceful stories, like The Woodcutter.

Should have sent a poet.

Then there are the Art Games. LSD Dream Simulator is a Playstation title allegedly based on 10 years of dreams had by a lady called Hiroko Nishikawa. If so, the poor thing dreamed in very blocky low resolution graphics. Walk around blocky streets finding blocky animals floating in the sky, or blocky corpses on the ground. Touch something and another dream starts. They get more dour and morose over the 365 days of game time. Sometimes a bad thing may happen. That’s about it.

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Since the days of LSD the graphics have got better but the attention whoring and lack of genuine engagement remains the sure sign of an Art Game. There’s a common texture to Yume Nikki and LSD but the differences are most helpful. Whether it’s a prank like Randy Balma or a warped world like Yume Nikki, it’s the insularity of the game that makes it appealing, the complete disregard for audience. They’re a personality you have to engage as the Other, as you do with real people you first meet.  Art Games want to be agreeable – LSD even comes as a coffee table book. That’s too comforting and controlled, like small talk with a celebrity*.

The phrase Inscrutable Energy popped into my mind today (the birds** are busy at the moment.) I think it requires that the appeal of a work is a bipolar force – the positive is represented the sweet, brightly coloured game like Angry Birds. The negative is much harder to create and to define but it’s equally powerful in inspiring playfulness.

I’ve a couple of projects looming for 2013 in which I’m being asked to justify a theme appropriate for the art of this moment – a hard thing (deservedly hard) for anyone as old and cynical as me. The New Aesthetic is not it. I really think it’s The Inscrutable. Only the inscrutable can withstand the forces that would apply metrics to art and devolve it into recipes and academies. The only power that can defeat Research is The Inscrutable. That should be our goal.

* For reasons I won’t go into I shook hands with Kevin Rudd today. He spoke to me like The Queen addressing a Commoner. I bet it was as tedious for him as was for me.

** It’s hard to answer when somebody asks about sudden inspiration. I tend to say that ‘the birds put it there’ because that’s how it seems to come, and the image is (hopefully) less offensive than claiming to be inspired. Sometimes the birds get too busy – right now a month or so of depression has lifted and the manic chattering of birds is driving me a bit nuts. It’ll end with a bang in about a week from now.