This week for the Onion, I filed a review of a zippy little art game called Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist. The review runs next week, so no spoilers on the grade. But I wasn’t satisfied with my write-up. I basically described the title and concluded, “It’s cool ’cause it’s weird,” or maybe I said, “It’s weird and that’s awesome” – I can’t exactly remember. But the thing I didn’t get into was why that’s a good thing. Randy Balma is provocative. It’s disturbing. It’s hard to play. And it’ll give you a headache. So … what?
The game comes from Mark Essen, who goes by Messhof. He’s made a series of difficult, motion sickness-inducing titles with names like Punishment and You Found the Grappling Hook. (You can see the whole portfolio on his site.) They play off retro visual styles and sound design, and they’re annoyingly difficult platformers – but they’re not quite as in your face as Randy Balma. Messhof claims this is his “most narrative” game to date. That’s hard to tell on the first play, because it seems like four unrelated mini-games stitched together into one package – which is pretty much how it seems to have been designed: in his blog he talks about working on sections two (the flying Big Ben) and three (originally slated to be Punishment 3) separately, and then munging them together with a driving sim and … well, I don’t even know what you’d call the fourth chapter, where you play a mutant baby head with lips for tentacles that eats other babies against a synapse-misfiring strobe background. I have no idea where that came from.
If all four pieces were designed separately, do they work as a narrative? Yes and no. I can imagine a theme throughout the game, where an abortionist dies in a fiery bus crash and then is transformed into the afterlife into a monster – a monster that still eats babies, but this time, it is itself a baby, which is weird. That said, the story makes as much sense as you want it to. The real thread is the sense of transformation – that you open in a disoriented, drugged state and then transform into something new and mind-expanding, and the aggressive visuals and eerie sound design accentuate this transformation. If you buy that, the game works pretty well. (Although if you buy that, then section three – where you are, not a transforming superabortionist, but a little dude jumping around in circles – doesn’t seem to fit. So, there’s a criticism.)
From the title to the aggressive aesthetic sense, the game is provocative. It reminds me of aggressive noise rock or experimental film, which attacks the audience with anti-social and rebellious themes. What’s more anger-making than abortion? Thing is, in playing Randy Balma, it’s hard to say if it’s “rebellious.” Against what does it rebel? In music, you can look at initially-repulsive genres like free jazz or no wave, and see how they revolted against 1. a particular artistic tradition, 2. a set of social conditions, 3. and oh yeah, everyone was fried on drugs or hormones. With Randy Balma, I might see #3, but not #1 or 2. It’s not clear from this game or Essen’s other titles that he’s making a conscious break from gaming or from life in America today. He doesn’t hate on commercial gaming: the retro elements make you think he’s fond of ’80s-style platformers, and there’s no satire against anything else. It’s hard to see any political undertones. I think he chose the “abortion” thing because it makes people go “What?!” Which is not necessarily a bad thing.
From my experience, the content and themes of the game – and the clunky, disjointed narrative – aren’t what make the game engaging. Randy Balma works purely because of the sensory experience. It’s not as subversive or as intriguing as Portal, another puzzler/platformer that lures you into playing head games with yourself. And I don’t really care if it “means” anything: in fact, to the extent that it tries, I think it hits some problems. But it unites the visuals, sound and gameplay for a unique and disturbing effect, and that’s always a hoot.
Still. If I had to put my finger on the single thing that makes it truly provocative? The game is not cute.
A lot of experimental games that have bubbled up give us new ideas or weird mechanics or goofy sound and visuals. But often, they’re sentimental or even fanboyish. Retro elements are thrown in out of love, not anger. The stories rely on trite cliches. I played the acclaimed art game Passage a few months ago, and I thought it was surprisingly insipid: when you meet your wife at the beginning, the game seems corny, but when she dies at the end and she’s replaced by a little tombstone? I just cracked up. Games can explore serious issues, but “You live, you love, and you die” doesn’t qualify.
Randy Balma stands out because it doesn’t have soppy moments. It tries to do something a little fucked up and consistently sticks to its guns. In fact, if you read it as a comment on the state of indie/experimental games today? Maybe it’s more rebellious than I thought.
UPDATE: Review is now live. The best comment came from El Santo: “To all the complainers who slagged on Roger Ebert’s assessment that video games are not art: be careful what you wish for. It just might come true.”