blood, blood, blood

January 2, 2011

‘Tis the season, as everyone knows, for the making of resolutions, the arbitrary line drawn in time by the beginning of a new year being as good a time as any to take stock of one’s life and try, however fleetingly, to imagine a ‘new you’. Now, I’m not much the resolution-making type, save for, as I attempted to communicate to a friend some time after midnight at a New Year’s party over music that was far too loud to make this an easy task, a general sense of trying to do better. However, one of the many more-or-less vague intentions contained within that impulse is the desire to write more regularly – by which I mean writing fiction, primarily, but also an attempt, time permitting, to return this blog to being at least a slightly more regular chronicle of things that, in whatever form, leave an impression on me. In the spirit of living up to this resolution, then, let me tell you about the game that, along with the much more celebrated Minecraft, was my game of 2010. Let me tell you, friends, about Space Funeral.

Space Funeral – which, I might as well point out, does not contain any funerals and is not set in space – is a JRPG, but that categorisation, though functionally true, is as misleading as it is pointless. Space Funeral doesn’t really care about being an RPG: although turn-based combat, dungeons, party management, levelling and item shops are all present and accounted for, they’re only there as the necessary frame upon which to hang  You are Philip – a boy (presumably, not that you can tell from the astonishingly bad – and yet effectively grotesque – artwork) thrown out of the house by his parents, still in his pyjamas and crying his eyes out – as he will continue to do throughout the game. 

What awaits outside the house is a dayglo-bright wasteland, like body-horror virulently exploding into a Saturday morning cartoon: houses shaped like smashed heads, monstrous fleshy trees, primary-colour landscapes. It’s a setting that has been, like Zeno Clash before it, compared to the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky because, hey, Jodorowsky is shorthand for ‘weird and surreal’. In truth, Space Funeral‘s milieu is delivered with a nudge and a knowing wink, instantly setting it apart from the feverish intensity of the Chilean filmmaker’s symbolic visions. Rather than mythology, Space Funeral draws upon a highly postmodern stream of pop culture detritus for its imagery: high fantasy tropes (wizards, quests, villages) clash with B-movie horror icons, comic strips, glam rock and poetry – Peanuts and Dracula, Charles Baudelaire and Marc Bolan all feature, in one way or another, and the whole thing is soundtracked by a remarkable collection of avantgarde music (I owe my discovery of the awesome Les Rallizes Denudes to the game, for which I am eternally grateful).

In this lurid hell-carnival of a world, what do you do? Well, you quest, because questing is what you do in an RPG. It’s an interesting point to note that, as peripheral as the RPG mechanics are to your enjoyment of Space Funeral, they serve an essential role in framing your experience of the gameworld. In the absence of any narrative or referential coherence, it is the game’s RPG-ness – the fact that you’ve played JRPGs before, so you instinctively know what to do – that structures your understanding of the game: no matter how strange, how off-the-wall random, how just outright insane the game gets, the mechanics keep you grounded.

The details of the quest? In time-honoured fashion, something is wrong: the world has been somehow corrupted, and the root of the decay appears to be a corruption in the City of Forms, the perfect city of which everything else in the world is an image. Although, as you are repeatedly informed, it’s too late for you, you must nonetheless head north in an attempt to locate this city and, presumably, in some way, fix whatever the hell has gone wrong.

At heart, then, Space Funeral is a replaying of the Heart of Darkness trope: a journey upriver through a world gone mad, in search of the source from which all the madness is flowing. What cannot be stressed enough, however, is how unpredictable this journey is, and what delight you will experience at each new discovery along the way. Space Funeral is a very, very, very funny game – more so, perhaps, than any game since the heyday of the LucasArts adventure – and any number of moments will stay with you and provoke quiet grins when recollected weeks later – the steak farm, the something’s-wrong-but-I’m-not-sure-what conversation with the Blood Wizard, and the encounter with Dracula are the ones that stand out the strongest for me, but you’ll have your own favourites.

And when you do get to the end of the journey (it’ll only take you two hours, tops), well…let’s talk about the ending (and, if you haven’t actually played it yet, please stop reading now, and go play the game THIS INSTANT, for this is one of the still depressingly rare games with a proper, satisfying ending. rather than a half-apologetic, “Yeah, it’s over. Wait for the sequel.”) The conclusion to the player/Philip’s quest  – the arrival at the City of Forms – is remarkable not only for its wit, its blending of self-consciously highbrow literary references (Paradise Lost, take a bow) with the most irrevently puerile of lowbrow humour, but also for how thoroughly it reconfigures the weirdness that came before as the setup for a philosophical point that is delivered – like everything else in the game – with tongue firmly in cheek, but that, given its context, is startlingly (and affectingly) profound. It probably says as much about me and my pretensions as about Space Funeral that I picked up distinct echoes of the Neoplatonism of Romantic aesthetic philosophy at this point – suggesions regarding the relation of art to the world and to notions of a more ‘ideal’ state from which the world has somehow fallen – but these echoes cannot be ignored.

The source of the corruption, it is revealed, is an artist who visited the City of Forms in search of inspiration. Confronted with its perfection, however, he froze: nothing he could create would be anything but a pale, inferior shadow of its beauty. The only course of action left to him, the only way he could free himself, was to destroy the City: but still the world continued to be haunted by echoes of its lost, perfect forms, still occasionally visible through the chaos. And so, he tells us, he must destroy again, and again, and so on forever, always tearing down in order to rebuild anew.

The questions this revelation raises about the role of art and the process of artistic creation are by no means anything new, but, in their context, they couldn’t feel any fresher, or any more vital. Space Funeral is, itself, the wrecked result of an iconoclastic thrashing: primarily a tearing-down of the JRPG, but also of all the throwaway fragments of cultural tropes and ephemera it assimilates. It presents you, the player, with the shredded remains of its inspirations, hastily re-glued together in new configurations and covered with glitter, poster-paint and paper-cut blood, and asks you, “Now isn’t this just more interesting?”  If the resulting chaos is as invigorating, as surprising, as clever and as plain fun as Space Funeral, one is almost inclined to agree that the destruction is a noble cause.

That it passes all of this off as the elaborate build-up to the (brilliant)  punchline of the game’s closing images is, possibly, even more of a stroke of genius.

So, GO PLAY or you will SURELY DIE. Or something.

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Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been playing some Neptune’s Pride, a free browser-based 4X game. It basically strips the 4X game model down to the basics – stars to conquer differentiated only by a single resource value, four technology tracks, one kind of unit, and three improvements that can be built on each of your stars (giving bonuses for economy, industry and science). There’s no attempt at setting up a fiction or creating atmosphere – this is pure mechanics, numbers and vectors plotted over a functional graphical display. You could call this focus, and it’s a necessary choice given the way the game system is revealed as no more than the foundation for the game’s real point of interest: the complicated web of diplomacy, fragile alliances, secret dealings and betrayals into which inter-player relations inevitably devolve.

A game of Neptune’s Pride plays out over several weeks, though you don’t need to play for more than a few minutes each day (it does, admittedly, become more time-consuming as the game nears its end). You issue your construction orders, set your fleet’s paths, message other players, and then go off and leave the orders to be executed over the following hours. This long-form system does, of course, mean there is plenty of time to mull over strategies, rethink courses of action and consider your allegiances. It makes for a more considered, meditative approach than the standard multiplayer game, and the result is that each player’s action feels deliberate and calculated: betrayals aren’t spur-of-the-moment, kill-or-be-killed impulses. They are premeditated: that green player’s probably been planning his surprise attack on you, while feigning friendship, for five days.

As much as it is about the inherent moral bankruptcy of the average player, however, Neptune’s Pride is also about something else: the tyranny of mathematics. I’ve played two games so far, one in which I was the first to be eliminated – three players ganging up on me while I was still learning the ropes – and one in which I won by a huge margin, finishing with more than double the number of stars of the second-place player. I’d like to think this was due to my awesome skills, but it had a lot to do with the fact that three players surrounding me went completely inactive, leaving me with vast areas to expand into to the west and south while the other players fought over limited territories. This gave me an insurmountable advantage: it was evident I was going to win halfway through the game, making the last week or so an oddly joyless process of sending the vast, mass-produced space armadas my extensive resources allowed me to field to crush the players I had been feigning allegiance to for several days. Perhaps I don’t have enough of a predatory disposition, but I couldn’t really get much pride or satisfaction out of betraying these allegiances and crushing their inferior empires underfoot.  I was the bad guy – they got screwed through sheer luck, and I was only the agent by which the game system plotted out their arbitrary demise.

This isn’t a criticism of Neptune’s Pride, really – perhaps, in paring down the 4X model to the basics, it allows an essentially distasteful property of the form to come to light. In the end, I came back home yesterday evening, not having accessed the game all day, to find that it had basically won itself: following the lines of attack I had set down some days previously, my fleets had made enough conquests to push me over the 89 stars required for victory. The game was over. I had won. Yay.