Monday, November 30, 2015

Short on Games: November 2015

Crypt Worlds


In the tunnels that house Mart Donald's, a Detective Joe hides in the corner of a room. In the back is a computer that tells you that you have no messages or friends. The front of the room has a few posters on the walls, a couch, a billiards table, and a jukebox.

The billiards table has ten balls – nine 8s, one cue – but there is no stick. The player can take a moment away from their quest to return the five Goddess Relics to the Goddess Moronia to click the cue ball and let physics take over. The couch is non-interactive, but the jukebox can be switched on and off. It only has one song; a noisy, industrial banger, on loop.

In the two years since I first played Crypt Worlds: Your Darkest Desire, Come True!, that billiards table, with the song on blast, came to symbolize the whole; it was my own internal metonymy. At the time, I was probably trying to break the billiards table, and enjoying the aggressive dimensionality of the sound from the jukebox. I've only ever played Crypt Worlds with headphones in, and any movement in space is reflected heavily in how the loop pans, and fades.

In playing Crypt Worlds, this room has two functions that I know; the computer that insults you is involved in the P.O.R.P. sidequest to obtain a cyborg body, and the Detective Joe can be pissed on daily to receive six gold bars. Gold is important as one of five ordinary collectibles, alongside Seeds, Meat, Crumbs and Bones. There are also Gold Bugs and Tears of God, Goddess Relics and Piss and, in a weird way, Days.

* * * * *

Crypt Worlds is a game in which the player opts either to save the world, plunge it into chaos, or shirk your responsibility entirely. As a being awoken by the Goddess Moronia to stop the evil Dendygar from destroying the Crypt Planes, your allegiance is clear. The threat of the Chaos God, whose tears are spread across cities accessible only by having archeologists unearth ruins below your house, is less obvious.

To collect the Goddess Relics, and so receive the "Good End" in which Dendygar is defeated, the player mostly has to learn the rhythms of the world in order to maximize their income ahead of the correct days. There is also some light platforming involved. Summoning the Chaos God requires slightly more platforming; letting Dendygar win requires nothing but sleeping and occasional self care.

The draw of Crypt Worlds is its aesthetic. Textures stretched over blocky geometry, heavy use of "billboarded" 2D sprites, and a conservative use of particle effects makes the game recall the Playstation era visually, in a way that turns what was once a testament to money spent into a conscious choice. The other draw is that of the verbs included ('move' with WASD, 'jump' with space, 'interact' with left click, and 'choose,' situationally, with 1-5) a full fifth of those available (by way of using the right click) is dedicated to piss.

Pissing in Crypt Worlds is somewhere between an alternative interact and a resource. Like the various currencies it is something that must be accumulated and spent; like the more ordinary interact button, it largely serves to progress through space and provide new dialogue. The way that Crypt Worlds splits that difference is really fascinating: it makes pissing, as both resource and interaction, a catalyst for physics.

* * * * *

In my most recent playthrough, I finally succeeded in breaking the billiards table. The cue ball clipped through the edges and found its way off the table and all around the tunnels into the Mart Donald's dining area.

My best guess is that the ball itself has its gravity box unchecked, because no matter where the floor was in relation to it the ball floated along at the same height. It got stuck behind the jukebox first, and I kept accidentally flipping off the loop and flipping it back on. When I finally bounced it out, it was weird to have that ball and not the tune. I had thought, before, that the billiards was what drew me in; the game itself, and its aesthetic especially, rely on an understanding of stasis. Sure, you can piss on the 3D-modeled characters to move them or knock them over, but that movement is half the comedy itself. People and things in worlds like this don't move; that is how you learn them, and how you then establish a routine of accumulation around them.

Clicking the ball and having it move was a tacit admission of this stasis. The only way to introduce dynamism is to clothe it in the garb of another genre, a dynamic game within a static game. I think that's still right, to some extent; but it is only partial. Watching the cue ball, with its cartoon-style thick black outline, float over the heads of the Mart Donald's consumers was a reminder of the tenuous connection between game objects and game spaces, and the labor that is strengthening that connection. Absent those bursts of static that stood in for percussion, though, it felt like an empty epiphany.

* * * * *

Crypt Worlds continues to succeed, for me, precisely in how it lives in those tenuous connection, in representation. The game's aesthetic allow it to move through nostalgia and comedy, to arrive at a juxtaposition of labor and alienation. In its currencies and its dialogue, in its topos and its verbs, in its assets and its soundtrack, Crypt Worlds returns constantly to work, both representatively and mechanically, and to alienation.

This is the other half of the comedy about making things move in a static world; it is the forceful assimilation of the abject into the space of abstraction. Pissing particles on polygons that consume, and on sprites that labor.

And to get to do that while an industrial riff ping pongs around your head; well, that's a lot of fun.

Monday, November 2, 2015

On the 40th Anniversary of Pasolini's Death

Today is the 40th anniversary of the death of Pier Paolo Pasolini, a director whose work – in particular, his film Teorema -- has meant a lot to me as both as a person who learned to watch films intentionally largely on my own, and as a person whose political thinking required a heavy amount of mediation in the form of arts prior to engaging in any form of action.

I came to Pasolini through Teorema, which I heard of from a friend in relation to Takashi Miike, who remade the film (in a way, at least) as his own Visitor Q. I barely remember my own reaction to Q, in all the subsequent years of talking about it as a "shocking" film. Miike is, perhaps, for another day.

Pasolini seems, at least in what I see talked about, best remembered for his Salò, an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom which set it in the dying moments of fascist Italy. Pasolini may have been the only director in history who could adapt de Sade's novel in a way that would be remotely interesting. I remember it being only that, though, the one time I managed to see it.

Pasolini's other work – his Gospel According to St. Matthew, and Oedipus Rex, perhaps most of all – have stuck with me in moments, and in images and in particular textures of ambiguity and emptiness. It is his Teorema, though, that holds sway over my imagination, that continues to teach me how to see films and how to live in the world.

Teorema is a film about small, wide open spaces; a bourgeois mansion, a church garden, a factory floor. It is slow, but everyone runs everywhere, though they haven't very far to go. It begins with its ending, and nearly ends with the same; images of class struggle and revolutionary overthrow without the agents of history, being recuperated by the media. Teorema is a religious film, unafraid of abstractions, that cuts to the desert to stand in for sex and sets its bourgeois father there in climax, where the penitent servant performs miracles, and the son holds forth on theories of art that instrumentalize his own incompetence.

It is also a film that refuses that other kind of abstraction, that would remove it from the struggle of factory floors, even as it demands its own ambivalence to that struggle in its particularity.