87 — Darkside Detective, Thimbleweed Park, And Obscure Lines From Ghostbusters

There’s a lot of Ace Attorney in Darkside Detective’s DNA, and it’s not only because your sidekick Officer Dooley is a distant cousin of Dick Gumshoe. Ace Attorney is notable, to me, for two things–its episodic structure that adds up to a larger whole, and its huge back cast of recurring characters. All of the installments of the series feel very grandiose because everything seems to be part of a bigger story, pieces of a gigantic puzzle, and it’s really clever in how it reuses its characters.

Darkside Detective doesn’t quite get to that point, but that’s okay: It’s a much smaller game in many ways, and it’s an excellent introduction to this world and these characters. You play Detective McQueen who, along with Officer Dooley solve supernatural mysteries, focusing on the Darkside, a parallel dimension which has its own branch of the police sent to deal with incursions from the real world. It’s an adventure game in the more storytelling mode–puzzles are simple, as logical as they need to be, and more to pace the plot. There are a few setpieces scattered around the episodes, and I’m sorry to inform you there’s a sliding tile puzzle.

What strikes me the most about Darkside Detective is how much better it gets as it goes on. The game consists of six supernatural mysteries, all of the wacky variety, all in that very smart, self-referential, very knowing mode where the characters are vaguely aware of their pop cultural influences–in this case, Twin Peaks, X-Files, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, etc.

You know, geek humor 101. It isn’t quite as bad as it could be–like, the writing restrains itself to only one Doctor Who reference that I caught, and I didn’t notice any Monty Python, thank God, thank God. There’s that very internetty mode of writing that I can’t stand, and Darkside flirts with it in its initial cases and then slowly becomes something pretty good. The game slowly introduces your fellow police officers, some members of the Darkside police force, various characters around town–there’s a world here, and one which begins to break out of its pop culture roots by the end, and if at the end we’re left with the feeling that they’ve just scratched the surface, well, always leave ’em wanting more, right?

I got a few flashes to The Last Door with the graphics–both games are drawn with very large pixels, very stylized, but Darkside features a ton of neon which, as someone whose room is decorated with lava lamps and Christmas lights, I was very fond of. But the game that I really couldn’t get out of my head while playing Darkside Detective was Thimbleweed Park.

Oh, Thimbleweed Park.

I’ve been chatting with a few friends lately about What The Fuck Exactly Went Wrong With Thimbleweed Park, and while everyone did feel a slight bit of acid bubbling in the back of their throats at various moments, the scene that killed the game for just about everyone I know was when a character turns to the player and says, “I want to be a game designer! My favorite company is MMUCASFLEM! They make the best games,” and then goes on to bash Sierra for all of the sins they committed in the games that they made 20-30 years ago.

I mean I guess I’m going to say it outright: Thimbleweed Park was embarrassing.

Right now there’s a lot of back and forth going on about the upcoming Ready Player One movie. I didn’t like the book because I am a fucking lit snob; I say that the six years I spent in Reading School give me the luxury to turn my nose up at any book I please. I know a bunch of people who loved the book, who see it as something affirming, and there is something pure to it. But there’s something very Loot Crate about it.

I guess I think about the underground nature of gay culture a lot because, paradoxically, I live in Portland, which–and I am of course saying this from the perspective of a white cis man who is fairly masculine-presenting and works at an organic grocery store–feels much more comfortable to be gay in than New Jersey or even New York did. LGBTX people are, quite frankly, much more visible here. I see more queer people here. And it’s so much less of a big deal: Mentioning a boyfriend in New York or New Jersey often led to a conversation about me being gay; mentioning it here just leads to further small talk about my relationship. It’s not hard for me to find others like me, and I can do so openly–and that’s a really fucking huge blessing. Another time–or another place–or hell, another family just down the block from me–and I wouldn’t have that luxury. Closet culture has so many tiny signals that you escalate from the subtle to the more overt, each step confirming that, yes, I’m picking up what you’re putting down, I’m throwing out my own references, each checking the other to see that, yes, I’m like you, we can be candid with each other because we’re both safe.

It’s a bit of a stretch to compare the treatment of geeks to the treatment of gays, but I’m all about metaphors and metonyms and analogies or whatever the fuck figure of speech I’m using–I may have gone to reading school for six years but that was ten years and a lot of weed ago–and I don’t think it’s unfair to compare the two. By my reckoning, I actually see both groups as coalescing in the 70s and 80s into a more codified culture. The gays had Stonewall and disco and, more darkly, the advent of HIV; the geeks had Dungeons and Dragons and the birth of personal computers and the beginnings of convention-based fandom. Being a geek or a fag would likely still get you beaten up–more severely if you were the latter, let’s face it–but at least there was a more defined culture. To reference that culture was to mark yourself as part of it. To quote Monty Python was a shibboleth.

But for motherfuck’s sake, it is 2017. Everybody knows Monty Python. To quote Monty Python is to proclaim nothing but the fact that you are tuned into mainstream (capitalist?) culture. Everybody knows Star Wars. Disney owns Star Wars. Steve Bannon likes Star Wars. There’s a scene from the pilot of How I Met Your Mother where the dipshit lead character (whose favorite movie is Star Wars) is listing the reasons he’s fallen in love with a woman. “She can quote obscure lines from Ghostbusters,” he gushes, and we cut to the lady telling Ray that the next time he’s asked whether or not he’s a god, he should say yes.

That’s not an obscure line from Ghostbusters. And do you know why that’s not an obscure line from Ghostbusters? That’s because there is no such fucking thing as an obscure line from Ghostbusters. Everybody has seen Ghostbusters at least once. Men have gone to war over Ghostbusters. Most movie critics agree it’s one of the finest comedies ever made. Ghostbusters is not a tiny underground film that only a few people know about it. It is mainstream pop culture.

And you know what? Mainstream pop culture–oh my god, 14-year-old Richard is going to shit himself when he reads this–is okay. I mean, it’s Problematic as shit, but fuck, enjoy a pop song if you like. I’m one of those guys who agrees about Ghostbusters being a great movie. I’ve seen it more times than I can count. But it’s really churlish to pretend the nerds didn’t win.

I mean, there’s something really sore winner about Thimbleweed Park. Its constant harping about how great its design philosophies are–design philosophies that haven’t changed in 20 years and, as influential as they may have been, don’t translate as well to 2017 as they think, like it doesn’t even seem to recognize that Wadjet Eye or Telltale exists–feels like a mean-spirited O’DOYLE RULES. Thimbleweed Park lightly pretends it’s actually from 1987, and it seems to think that both the feuds and the references are still as fresh as they would have been then. It feels like being in your 30s and writing a piece about shit that happened to you in high school. Every snipe at what other adventure game companies are doing, every crow about how great Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island were back in the day, every stupid bazinga reference–it’s like, you’ve been doing this for how many years? Aren’t you better than this?

But, like, it’s hard to find your people sometimes. And I think the shibboleths of obscure references are a necessary part of growing up, even in this world where movies you would have gotten funny looks for liking are now cash cow franchises that have made a bunch of people very, very wealthy. Because these things are new to people, at some point, and your opinion doesn’t matter to someone who just fell in love with Final Fantasy XV. Maybe Thimbleweed Park doesn’t pass my sniff test for authenticity, because it’s so stuck in its own past. It is a work that comes from a constant self-focus, a turning inward that decides that what it sees is pretty much the greatest thing ever.

That authenticity is there in Darkside Detective. If, in itself, it’s merely “a decent, pretty game with nice music, a few good laughs, and a neat story”, that ain’t bad, and again, I love that the game slowly breaks out of its shell as it progresses, gaining more confidence each episode in the story it’s telling, in the characters it’s introducing us to, in the world it’s building. The ending promises a followup, assuming the game sells enough copies, and I hope it happens. Darkside Detective might be a decent game, but its sequel is going to be awesome.

86

I should try to update this fucking thing more, so here’s a little of what I’ve been up to:

1.  Hatred: Or, The Last Temptation of Richard Goodness, a new game which I released something like two months ago. Sorry I didn’t tell you.

I’m happy and proud of this one; writing-wise, it’s kind of the culmination of Zest, The Richard Goodness Trilogy, and Sam And Leo Go To The Bodega (all of which come with Hatred as extras!); my boyfriend Mat did the art and some insane CSS stuff, and I even recorded a soundtrack. So spend a smoky Saturday evening enjoying it if you like!

2. With Trekabout, we’re beginning Season 3 of Voyager; with Tuning In, we’re starting Season 3 of The X-Files. So far I’m liking X-Files more. Voyager is occasional good episodes with a lot of dire shit.

3. I’ve been working on a remake of TOMBs of Reschette–Mat is going to be illustrating the thing, and I’ve written a new ending and done a little redesign. I’m going to be compiling that along with a piece I’m calling Faeiriey Tailes Off Olde Reschette–right now it looks like that’s going to be a small fiction anthology with maybe some light interactive elements. Ultimately I’m looking to expand Reschette into a full series–I’ve got four major installments in mind for it. What can I say, I’m in an epic mood.

4. I can’t say I’ve played anything life-changing since Persona 5. Supposedly Grimoire is really really really really going to come out in two days. I guess I’ve got to blog the hell out of that one if it does.

85 – Persona 5’s Camp Sensibilities Are Comedy Gold

The setup: Your artist friend Yusuke takes you to the park and the two of you rent a rowboat. He’s a bit pretentious–he’s talented but seventeen, so–and he’s going on and on about how he’s chosen love as the subject of his next painting, and begins to furiously sketch the man and woman in a nearby boat. He rhapsodizes about the obvious passion between them, the pure devotion, the romance–until, inevitably, they notice him and are upset by the attention. Besides, the man says, this isn’t my girlfriend, it’s my sister, I know mostly couples do these things but she’s visiting from back home and wanted to come here.

But if only couples go out on the boats, what about them, the sister asks, pointing at you and Yusuke.

The punchline: Well, the brother says, you have to understand that in the big city, there are people from all walks of life!

I mean, maybe you had to be there.


Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Two teenagers and their cat are in the colorful part of town when two older men accost one of them. Let’s party, they say, grabbing the boy and dragging him off, screaming.

“Come back alive,” says the cat.

Don’t worry if you missed the nuances of this joke, they’ll repeat it later.


If you’re feeling industrious and you have certain stats, you can get a job at a bar managed by Miss Lala Escargot, an overweight drag queen with a chainsmoker’s voice. To the extent that she’s a character–she’s largely a Greek chorus in someone else’s story–she’s treated fairly sympathetically. She’s, you know, more or less the best you can hope for as far as this particular stock character goes: Gruff exterior but truly tender inside, who loves her customers, who refuses to show how much her heart breaks at the woes of everyone around her–and, hell, if she’s ripping off Anita Bidet a bit, I’ve got such fond memories of The Oblongs that I’ll allow it.

Accepting the job, you quite reasonably ask Lala if you need to dress in drag for the job. Too bad, your cat laughs when you learn the answer is no. You would have looked really funny. Now, maybe he’s not referring to dressing in drag itself–maybe he’s just saying, you’ve not shown any previous interest in the art, you’ve got no makeup skills, no experience wearing dresses and heels, and so this is simply a recipe for some legendarily bad drag–but still, that fucking cat.


There’s, you know, nothing offensive about any of this–it’s too lazy, too cliche–I mean, I can only give you vague summaries of the Problematic Queer Shit in Persona 5 because I’m just clicking through these sections because, I mean, I’ve seen Adam Sandler movies before and I’d rather move on to the better shit. It’s just, you know–embarrassing. Listen: I’m 35, the guys who wrote this game probably average around there, we’re dealing with the adventures of a bunch of 17-year-olds, and here are a bunch of jokes that, at 13, I would have only laughed at in order to fit in.

I mean, if you thought it was funny, well, that’s cool too. I guess the world does need laughter.


There’s an amount of oh, Japan that comes into play when having this conversation, but honestly Persona 5’s vision of Tokyo madeleines me back to New Jersey, to 2008–not least because that’s the year I played Persona 3 and 4, but because this is kind of what my life was like, a large, dramatic group of friends I was always going to some adventure or event or other with.

I left New Jersey even though I had many places and people who cared for me but because it wasn’t my home, because I felt like a guest in someone else’s house, because–I mean I guess it’s like, my dog, right, he’s just this adorable goddamn thing, he’s got this really cute face and he dances around when he’s excited and he just makes me crack up, and I just love having this dog in my life, I love this fucking dog. No one in Jersey was homophobic, just as Persona 5 isn’t homophobic. They’re not homophobic: After all, we’re hanging out with Rich, and Rich is a big ol’ gay, isn’t he?

I mean it’s true, it ain’t my fault if they happen to find me hilarious. And I mean, let’s face it, sex is funny. That makes gay sex really funny!


Their time at the beach drawing to a close, a group of teenage boys decide to go for broke and hit on every girl they can see in a desperate attempt to lose their virginity before their vacation ends. Disheartened after rejection after rejection, they finally hear someone catcalling them!

Oh shit, one of them says, all of the color draining from his face, it’s the guys from earlier–and indeed, it’s the two men from the colorful part of town who dragged him off and (I’m extrapolating) raped him earlier. A merry chase ensues.

I told you they’d repeat the joke later.

84 – Eveline

(So fair warning, I’m gonna spoil the shit out of Pippin Barr’s “Eveline” as well as a bunch of James Joyce’s Dubliners. Play the first and come back–it’ll take you about five-ten minutes–and read the latter in your spare time if you want something draining and kind of depressing to read.)

Oh boy did I do the High Modernism thing in college: I’ve read every one of Virginia Woolf’s novels, I can speak fluently about Katherine Mansfield, and oh God, I’ve read Ulysses. I was that asshole. My advisor, itching for an excuse to reread it, offered to read Finnegans Wake with me and count it as my master’s thesis, and while I ultimately chickened out, I seriously considered and vaguely regret not taking her up on the offer.

So, oh hell yes was Pippin Barr’s “Eveline” Definitely My Jam. You’re cast as an aspiring writer who’s finally going to do it: You’re going to spend three hours every morning writing, and when you complete that short story that’s bursting to get out, you’re going to call a literary agent and start your career. And so you sit down at the typewriter, and you the player bang on the keys like an infinite number of monkeys and a story appears. You can distract yourself–looking out the window, reading a copy of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, gazing at a plant–but the focus is on the story you’re typing up.

And I must admit that it took an embarrassingly long time to realize that the story you’re typing up is “Eveline” by James Joyce. I mean, it’s there in the title, right? What, at first glance, appeared to me, since I wasn’t really reading it, to be a hilariously laser-sharp parody of bad, self-conscious literary fiction turned out to be, you know, one of my favorites of Joyce’s stories.

“Eveline” comes to us from Dubliners, which is the first of Joyce’s four major works and his most accessible work. Instead of the ridiculous heights that his language eventually would achieve–making up words based on puns in four different languages, depicting thoughts in rambling, pages-long paragraphs, structuring chapters like catechisms–Dubliners is written in fairly straightforward prose. In many ways, its influence is so widespread that its innovations are taken as standard today. Writers like Joyce and Woolf, inspired in part by the advent of psychology, shifted the focus of their novels from descriptions of the external to portrayals of the interior self.

That focus on the inner worlds of characters was fairly revolutionary in the early part of the 20th century, but seems pretty natural, even slightly boring if you’re reading it today. Dubliners has one theme, hit over and over: Dublin is a city of losers, is a city that has beaten down these people so much that they don’t even realize that they’re losers. It’s, as you can imagine, a heartbreakingly sad work about broken people trapped in their situations and unable to take the steps necessary to get out, or even to imagine the ways in which they can.

My favorite, “A Painful Case”, is a perfect example: A lonely man meets a woman who’s in a loveless marriage–the kind where there isn’t even enough passion between them to have feelings of hostility. The two are kindred spirits: they bond over art and music and politics, and begin to spend a lot of time together, something her husband actively encourages. (Essentially, the romantic side of their relationship is so nonexistent that he’s simply happy that she’s found a friend.) When she indicates a desire to move their relationship to a deeper level, however, the man freaks out–over What People Will Think if he has an affair with a married woman, over his own morality, over his own stupid fears of what it might mean–and cuts off contact with her. Years later, he finds out that she reacted to that by turning to drink, and ultimately walked into the path of a train–and of course it’s ambiguous and irrelevant whether or not it was an accident or suicide. The man realizes what he did to her, and the happiness that both of them would have had had he been bold enough to pursue the relationship, and that he threw away the one person who ever loved him for the stupidest of reasons.

It’s that kind of book.

And so Joyce’s “Eveline”, the story you’re typing up in Pippin Barr’s game, is also about missing that chance, this time focusing on a young woman or not to run away with her sailor boyfriend and get on the boat that’s going to Take Her Away From All This–All This in her case being her sickly, alcoholic, abusive, asshole father, her rundown apartment, her crappy job. It’s a dramatic scene–the boat about to leave, her terror at leaving matched only by her terror at staying–and ultimately she decides not to go: She promised her dying mother she’d keep the family together, after all, and her father was nice to her once or twice, and she just can’t let him rot by himself, and who will take care of the little ones? She will be stuck in this life.

And yet Eveline is in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation, because, well, it doesn’t look that great for her and her boyfriend, really. “I know these sailor chaps,” her father says when he forbids the relationship–and there’s a strong implication that this is a case of a rotten husband smelling his own kind. Her boyfriend’s plan is to take her to his apartment in Buenos Aires, where they’ll live, but he’ll be off at sea and leave her alone to take care of the house and the inevitable children, and when the passion cools, there frankly isn’t that much to stop him from simply abandoning her when he’s done. That Eveline isn’t the only girl he’s done this with is certainly on the table.

In a way, it’s an odd choice for Barr to have as the centerpiece of his game. There is, perhaps, a bit of a fuck-you involved in it: Until a couple of years ago, Joyce material was under copyright and jealously maintained by his grandson Stephen, whose death legions of literature students will cheer. Joyce’s works are in the public domain now, however: Barr’s “Eveline” could technically not have been legally made a few years ago. Any use of Joyce in so extensive a fashion has a bit of that resonance.

But Barr’s writer protagonist–aren’t they kind of faced with a Joycean epiphanic challenge too? Here they are, ready to make the transition from amateur to Real Writer. A schedule: A goal: A plan. A lot is riding on this short story: It is the key to their future.

That the inevitable punchline is the literary agent telling you not to ever call again because you submitted a hundred-year-old James Joyce story as your own–well isn’t that a sign that this character’s unable to break out of their life? The desire is there, but the talent and creativity isn’t.

I’m getting to a point in my own writing where I’m beginning to make those first vague steps to cross the boundary from barista-with-a-journal to an actual honest-to-Goodness writer. Stephen King says that you become a successful writer when you send something in to someone, they give you money for it, and that money pays the light bill, and that literally started happening to me this year. I’ll still need a day job–I’ll probably always need a day job, because let’s be honest with ourselves, none of us are going to earn a real living on game development or criticism because the money ain’t there–but shit, it’s a nice boundary to have crossed.

But, like, I’ve been the character in Barr’s “Eveline” so many times myself. I think every writer gets to that point: You decide to set aside a time and schedule to write, you’re going to be serious, you bang out your story, and it turns out to be derivative and boring and unpublishable. No, I’m not a *hugely* successful writer–yet?–but I’ve bought myself food, pot, and a couple videogames from my writing, and that’s pretty nice.

See, what keeps Dubliners from being a whole total drain of a book–story after story about losers condemned to loserdom–is the final story, “The Dead”, which is usually considered not only one of Joyce’s finest moment but one of literature‘s. We follow a man named Gabriel as he attends his family’s Christmas party and silently judges everybody; in the end, his wife tells him a story about an old boyfriend that he never heard before and slowly begins to realize that he’s kind of a douchebag: He’s a pompous ass who’s detached from Ireland and family, whose visions of himself don’t match up to reality–but who’s still married to a loving woman, who has a healthy and alive family, and who just needs to pull his head out of his ass and be a better person. What happens to Gabriel Conroy isn’t nearly as dramatic as what happens to Ebeneezer Scrooge, but then again, his sins aren’t nearly as grandiose–he’s not cruel or heartless, he’s just kind of a self-involved buffoon. In general, the stories in Dubliners are structured with the characters representing various stages of life–early stories are about children, then progress to stories about teenagers and youth, then into adulthood and middle age. The affirmations of life at the end of The Dead certainly suggest that, as many people who are crushed and defeated by Dublin, there are those that it strengthens and who manage to transcend it.

And so, your wannabe writer protagonist in Barr’s “Eveline” will not be so easily dissuaded by one rejection. Why, maybe the problem was that you weren’t thinking big enough! Now that you’ve got a short story under your belt, a novel will be easy. And so you go back to the typewriter, and while I expected to bang out something about a moocow or stately plump Buck Mulligan or even the riverrun past Eve and Adam’s, what your writer protag decides to write, as the game fades to black: “Call me Ishamael.”

I doubt I need to point out the resonances in having “your” novel be about a man who destroys himself and nearly everybody around him in pursuit of an obsession.

I guess the note I want to end on is that–okay. Barr’s work gets kind of academic, very gamey, which is one of the reasons I love his stuff–generally there’s a lot of deconstruction of mechanics and all of this stuff I only vaguely understand, and there’s probably some of that going on here too. All of these themes I’m picking up on, the affinities with Joyce’s work–you know, that’s part of the point of the game. But, like so many of Barr’s other games, I can’t stress how fucking funny I found “Eveline”. You see its punchlines coming from a mile away, and yet Barr’s comic timing means that builds up anticipation for the joke. If the joke is built on a foundation of literary resonances, well, I think that just makes the joke better.

Like–Finnegans Wake, right? Most people consider it incomprehensible, and the papers written around it, like most academia, often represent a weird kind of pissing contest where people desperately want to prove to each other that they actually read the damn thing. Joyce himself joked that he put enough stuff in the novel to keep professors busy for “centuries”. There are people who consider the entire novel to be an elaborate prank, that it’s a meaningless pile of half-words, that the emperor has no clothes–an equal, death-of-the-authory school of thought that doesn’t care whether it’s a joke or not because there’s meaning to be gotten from it.

As for me? Finnegans Wake took ten years to write, and there’s a running gag in lit departments that it takes ten years to read. Certainly you’ve got to either get an advanced literature degree or do the equivalent amount of reading on your own to be able to have a hope in hell of making sense of its many allusions. It helps to know a shitload about Irish history and mythology. And if you’ve got a few languages under your belt, so much the better.

I mean, I don’t know about you, but that’s one of the funniest jokes I’ve ever heard.

83 – Dropsy

A woman named Kim Davis, a government clerk in Kentucky, is currently in the news for her legal troubles surrounding her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples following the United States Supreme Court’s decision that people can’t be denied marriage licenses just because they’re not heterosexual. This is, of course, about as divisive a topic as you can get: Davis cites her religion as the reason for her stance, which plenty–myself included–see as simple bigotry. Davis and her supporters see her as a hero–much to the band Survivor’s dismay, “Eye of the Tiger” was used at a rally for her–who is standing up for the rights of poor, battered Christians forced to uphold immoral laws. As everyone knows, gay folks are sinners and kind of gross.

It’s hard not to treat Davis as monstrous–there’s a reason that the most popular, memetic photo of her that’s going around is of her looking particularly unattractive, looking like she’s screaming–the fat ugly bitch jokes write themselves. I’ve made a few myself. To a very real degree, she represents a strain of thought which is monstrous. If the Christian Right thinks that gay marriage will lead to dog-fucking, I can’t be blamed for thinking that her attitude leads to beating people up, tying them to fences, and leaving them to die.

In the middle of all of this, the game Dropsy the Clown was released.

The kneejerk reaction to Dropsy, as exemplified by Kotaku, is that it’s a “messed up game” about a “disturbing clown”; as of the time of this writing, the single news story in my Steam library page is a PC Gamer article with a similar sentiment. At some point, coulrophobia became trendy–and so you’ve got plenty of grown adults talking about how scary they find clowns and how scary Dropsy himself is.

A very, very slight bit of research–a simple visit to the game’s front page, frankly–is that such is the point of the game. The setup is that Dropsy’s circus burned down some years ago, that he’s been blamed for it, and that he’s looking for redemption. One of the main gimmicks in the game is a hug button, and many of the puzzles involve solving characters’ problems so that they feel comfortable enough to return the hug.

And so the main theme of Dropsy becomes fairly obvious: Dropsy may be gross, but he’s got a heart of gold underneath the distastefulness, and the game becomes about showing people love and kindness in order to earn their love.

Adam Cadre talks about what he calls the “redemption of the ludicrous“–taking a silly pulp story and treating it seriously. Citing the examples of Watchmen and the film Ed Wood, redemption of the ludicrous essentially gives dignity to characters that most people took to be jokes. Dropsy takes a similar theme, one after my own heart–it’s essentially the plot of Zest and my upcoming IFComp game–which I call “redemption of the gross”.

See, when I started following the indie scene, particularly the Twine branch of it, a few years ago, I found it inextricably latched with Jon Ronson’s shaming and callout culture. A major element of queer gaming culture that I’ve always found horrifying is its willingness to ostracize–to cite oppression as a reason to utterly dismiss people that might not necessarily be oppressive. White, heterosexual, cisgender men are synonymous with power, power is synonymous with oppression, and as long as one is queer–queer games defined facilely as “like, a game where it’s not a straight, white male doing things“, a definition which simultaneously refuses to understand both the history of queerness and the history of games–then one can never be an oppressor. What I’ve always understood queer to truly be is that it’s an attempt to break down hierarchies rather than simply flipping them. What I found in the queer Twine scene was that practice of simple flipping–rather than a blur, I see a simple “white cisgender men are bad and gross“. A refusal to explore other perspectives. A willingness to label anyone who disagreed as “gross” and shut them out of the conversation forever. A monolithic view of groups along with a brush painting them as moral or immoral.

For me, queer is a blurring of the boundaries between people, one which sees the very divisions between people as the methods in which power oppresses. Queer is very linked with that redemption of the ludicrous, redemption of the gross–it’s a method by which all people are allowed to attain dignity and understanding. I remember the big insight I had in college, which, like any insight made by a 20 year old is simplistic and not always applicable to the real world, but which I think has a little bit of merit still: Everyone’s kind of queer. “Heteronormativity”–which, sorry to say, does not simply mean “white, heterosexual, cisgender male”–is an illusion, a goal which doesn’t exist. It is an ideal that nobody quite matches with 100%. Everybody–Kim Davis included–has some sexual practice, some aspect of their gender identity, some part of their being–which deviates from the invisible ideal.

I find that, for all its obsession with empathy and understanding, the queer indie gaming scene doesn’t often have any–and given its focus on hierarchies, on its two-legs-bad-four-legs-good denigration of anyone not like it, anyone not willing to step in line with its orthodoxies, it’s not surprising that queer gaming wants to talk without listening. Believes that no one can truly understand each other.

I don’t have a high opinion of activism. A few years ago, I found myself randomly living in an Occupy house a couple years after Occupy itself ceased to be relevant and powerful and had devolved into a bunch of confused kids who were passionate and committed but not particularly organized or focused. My roommate was Cecily McMillan–a formidably smart woman who exemplified the difference between Intelligence and Wisdom stats–someone whose drive and ambition ran hot, chaotic, and ineffective instead of cold, rational, and efficient.

I remember one conversation at a party at the house–she was having an argument about feminist issues with an older guy, an African-American man who I think might have been a professor of hers. I judged him to have been a little too young to have been directly active in the civil rights movement of the 60s, but not by much–he was probably in his mid-20s at some point during the 1970s and had, based on his conversations, had direct family members involved. “You can’t understand what it’s like to be a woman,” Cecily was saying.

“Maybe not directly,” he said, “but I’ve got a mother. I have sisters. I have aunts. I’ve heard their stories. I have an idea.”

“You can’t understand,” Cecily repeated. “I can’t understand what it’s like to be black in this country!”

He laughed at this. “You can. You can listen to my stories, you can compare that to your own life.”

“No,” Cecily said. “I can’t.” He gave up soon after.

Divisions between people. Boundaries. A failure of empathy. A sense that one’s personal feelings trump everything else.

It is fairly obvious, when playing Dropsy for even a few minutes, that Dropsy is cuddly and lovable, just misunderstood. Most people are picking up on that, and I’m glad of that. I’m glad that we have an indie game which is based on the redemption of the gross rather than the rejection of it; in this light, Dropsy is one of the queerest queer games to be released in a very long time. But what’s striking me about the game is that it’s not simply about Dropsy letting the world know that he’s okay–it’s about Dropsy finding the okayness in everyone else, in understanding their lives and their needs, in helping them into a state of dignity.

Dropsy, see, has no compunctions about who he interacts with–he wants to hug everybody. He wants to love and be loved by everyone he meets on the journey. No one is too gross or distasteful for him. There are people that it’s certainly easier to love in the game–the little girl mourning a dead flower, the two bored young women sitting on the steps, the cool bouncer in front of the club. But the game is about loving the freaks and the losers. One of the most touching moments in the game is a troglodytic, hungry, homeless old woman in an alleyway; her puzzle involves giving her a sandwich. Returning later, you find her asleep and content, a smiling caricature of Dropsy now graffiti’d on the wall, one of the most touching moments in the game so far. Going into the church, seats empty except for two guys who seem more interested in the free food and who are explicitly annoyed by the preaching, you find a woman ranting about the sins of the world, a fire and brimstone preacher that Kim Davis would probably love to listen to. Go to the playground at night and you see her smoking a cigarette, depressed, and worried about the lack of attendance. She may play the role of a ranting preacher by day, but at night she’s as alone and sad as anyone in the game.

See, a lot has been written about how kind of sociopathic adventure game characters are. Looking at the whole of the genre, a lot of puzzles are about tricking characters. About seeing NPCs as obstacles. As an adventure game player, I’ve poisoned guards doing their jobs, swindled money and goods from countless stores, killed animals that were simply protecting their homes. Any other game would see the preacher lady as an obstacle, as a bad person that it’s okay to trick. Dropsy sees her as a human being that’s no less deserving of love and happiness.

The other day I noticed Dropsy designer Jay Tholen tweeting about some Christian movie and about his disappointment with that genre itself–in a nutshell, he finds a lot of Christian media to be exploitative, to take the trappings of the faith but not the message. To be about Christian superiority. To be about shutting out anyone who doesn’t talk the talk. Dropsy is a subtly Christian game–there are crosses scattered here and there, not just in the church but as devotional knickknacks. There’s one in Dropsy’s tent owned by his fellow clown. After solving the puzzle of the dead flower, the little girl joyfully emotes a cross–dialogue in the game is rendered entirely in pictograms–suggesting that she believes she’s been the recipient of a tiny miracle. (Frankly, she has.) If Dropsy isn’t quite a standin for Jesus, he’s a suggestion of the hard path of Christianity. It’s not the vengeful God of Kim Davis who judges who is worthy, who is gross, but the compassionate God that recognizes that faith that can move mountains is utterly useless if I have not love. In addition to being extremely queer, Dropsy is also profoundly, deeply spiritual. It’s not preachy–it’s not Alum, which is an awesome game in its own right–and it’s not theological. But it is concerned with the here and now, in using faith as a path to love and a path to seeing the dignity in everyone.

It’s hard to love Kim Davis when she finds it so hard to love people like me,  just like it’s hard to love Dropsy and many of the people in his world. But it’s important to try at least. Before playing the game, the mentions of the dedicated “hug button” in previews made it seem to me like a meaningless thing that you could do to any character in the game no matter what–that it was just a little bit of flavor. But most of the people refuse to hug you unless you’ve solved their puzzle–unless you’ve managed to understand them and make that moment of connection. Loving and being loved is hard, Dropsy says. But god damn is it worth it.

82 – Veil of Darkness

Look, I’m not NOT proud of it, but I cheated. One puzzle was just beyond my reach. The solution in itself is clever in retrospect, but is one of those adventure game puzzles that’s just difficult to derive. There’s a man who’s been cursed to take the form of a tree. I’m running around asking every character about TREE and CURSE and no one’s giving me anything–I just can’t figure out how to uncurse him. The solution is to light the tree on fire, burning it into ashes, and taking said ashes to the monastery to get him revived back into human form. Once you have the ash pile, it’s extremely obvious what to do–the monk very specifically requests ashes rather than a corpse–but the bit about burning the tree on fire is left field (and, in fact, the man isn’t particularly grateful about the method you chose.)

Swaying me further from the solution is the fact that, in the forest area, which is sprawling and mazelike, a man tells you that the banshee “can reduce a man to ashes”, and so I’m wandering around the forest looking for a man who’s been reduced to ashes and just not finding one. I’m not even finding the banshee, and somewhere in the forest there’s a blue spinning circle that I can’t seem to interact with in any way. It turns out that the spinning circle is the banshee, and the reason that it’s not doing anything to me is that I happen to discover, hours earlier, a necklace that protects me from it. It’s a case where you’ve solved the puzzle but the game gives you no feedback that you have.

And so with the seal broken and the walkthrough consulted, I finished the rest of the game following it. I’d hit about the 3/4ths point. The rest of the game featured many more clever-in-retrospect puzzles, and maybe I would have solved some of them with more effort, but it didn’t matter.

There are tons of adventure games that people play over and over again–by the third time through Day of the Tentacle you’re not solving puzzles so much as you are performing them. Looking at a walkthrough is being handed the script as opposed to deriving the script through your own efforts, and maybe one is purer than the other, but in all cases you’re dealing with executing a series of specific actions.

And so the last bits of Veil of Darkness, the parts I played with the walkthrough, represented a shift in tone which actually matched what was happening in the game. The initial stages of the game are about investigation, about learning the world, about poking into crypts and meeting people and slowly uncovering the valley’s secrets. The endgame is about action–about your final preparations, about your showdown with the vampire.

The final showdown is a multi-level puzzle–essentially the head vampire makes a series of assaults that you need to be prepared for counter. He tries to hypnotize you, so you have to figure out how to avoid that. He tries to bite your neck, so you have to figure out how to repel him, and so on. You can methodically derive the counters to each attack, dying and restoring each time, and many of them are obvious (you’re gonna wear the garlic necklace you have, for example, because duh), but in a way it transforms the game into an interactive movie in the best of ways if you know exactly what to do. It shifts from the cerebral elements of investigation to the realm of the active. It’s almost like watching along with the final scenes of a horror movie, where the protagonist is gearing up for that final confrontation, and let’s face it, there’s times when seeing the hero die over and over again takes the fun out of it.

I think about how Ben Kingsley was in BloodRayne and admitted that he took the role out of a childish desire to run around in a cape and bite people on the neck. Veil of Darkness isn’t the deepest game I’ve ever played, it’s got its flaws, but hot damn, it was fun to be that adventuresome pilot running around Transylvania and trying to solve the mystery.

And more importantly, there’s a charm and a respect that comes from it. If Veil of Darkness is a Transylvania simulator, it’s an excellent Transylvania simulator. It’s pulp: It’s great pulp. You stake the evil vampire in a series of gorgeously-drawn panels (have I mentioned that the art is fantastic), you restore peace and sunlight to the valley, and you and the (admittedly damseled, look, it’s by the numbers) girl sail off to wherever life takes you. I mean I’ve got so much fucking angst in my life already. Do I really want to play a shooty game that yells at me for playing a shooty game?

81 – Veil of Darkness

Anatoly Shashkin tells me that Veil of Darkness–another SSI game!–is a lost gem, and dammit, he’s right: A single screenshot on his twitter convinced me that what I needed to be doing today was playing this game.

Veil is one of those adventuresome games with some RPG elements–some light RPG elements, I stress: There’s no XP (an automatic strike against full-blown RPGness in my book), and everything seems to be built more around weapon types than any particular statistics: In other words, you’re gonna use a mace to bash a skeleton, and a silver sword to fight undead. Stuff like that. Combat, as is the case with a lot of these kinds of games, is horrible and awkward, half dice rolling and half finicky placement that, in my case, requires some shifting from mouse to keyboard and dancing around while you bop whatever enemy you’re facing, but for whatever reason, the combat is coming off as endearingly horrible and awkward.

Basically, Veil of Darkness is Quest for Glory 4 without the puns. You’re an incredibly Aryan, incredibly blonde, incredibly square-jawed fellow taking your daredevilly plane over mountains of Transylvania–as you do–when the local vampire flings a few bats at the cockpit, causing you to crash–there’s a great scene where the vampire is gloating in his castle as he sees a vision of your plane. The art is gorgeous, I must add. The valley is so isolated that nobody even knows what a plane is, and you’re prophesized to save everyone from the supernatural curses. The prophecy itself serves as a neat riff on the quest journal–it’s in the form of a cryptic poem, as these things usually are, and as you decipher each line and solve the related problem, it fades away, allowing you to track your progress as you go through the steps of the prophecy.

The game is very well-paced–it opens up new areas steadily enough that the initial stages give off a sense of progress even though most of what you’re accomplishing is simply meeting characters and learning the locations. Many of the quests are in several parts–find the goblet, the ashes of someone you want to resurrect, AND three somewhat-rare silver coins is a major one. I’ve found the goblet in the course of other branches of investigation, and while I don’t need to resurrect anyone just yet, this sequence is firmly held in a balance between the satisfaction of progress and the mystery of an unsolved puzzle. And in the same location, there’s a locked door and another character who has his own curse. The quests are very intricately knotted together.

Veil, being an adventure game made in the very early 90s, is, at its heart, a gigantic puzzle which uses its narrative as its puzzle pieces. There’s a keyword dialogue system, and not every keyword is decided for you: One character requires a certain herb, and you find another character chewing on a sprig of it. She suggests you ask her son; you’ve got to remember that and type the keyword in. Which reminds me that I haven’t been taking very careful notes; I think you need to take notes. The RPG elements are just kind of there–you can warp out to a healer with a couple of clicks at any time, it seems, and get freely healed to 100%–but the challenge of the game lies in untangling the knot.

The interconnectedness of it goes a long way towards worldbuilding. If everything is General Transylvania, it’s a fairly well-realized version of it, and the story even goes out of its way to not make it a simple Dracula retelling–there’s a short story in the manual which details a fairly original backstory for the main villain, and its one which, purple as it is, goes a long way towards reinforcing the plot. The characters all know each other, and many of the situations are a nice little soap opera of so-and-so wrongfully accusing so-and-so for someone else’s murder; a witch, who’s intent on wresting a secret from the monastery, has a spell cast on the wrongfully-accused man; her grandfather, in ghost form, is guarding the mausoleum–frankly, it’s hilariously ridiculous typing it all out, we’re practically in Dark Shadows territory. When it’s revealed that a catatonic woman who knows a secret was the fiancee of another character’s previously unmentioned dead son–I mean, this shit is awesome.