Gamemoir 04/15/2016 – Woah! More Daves, Please! A Timely Look Back at an Indie Classic

Here’s a timely look back at Woah Dave!, the minimalist masterpiece from Choice Provisions (formerly Gaijin Games).


For fans of indie gaming, news of another beloved studio’s shutdown is never inexplicable. It’s a tough business for indie devs. On April 7, 2016, Choice Provisions (formerly Gaijin Games), makers of the legendary Bit.Trip series, announced it will be closing its San Francisco office. The Santa Cruz studio will continue to operate. As a tribute, let’s look at one of Choice Provisions under-appreciated gems: the neo-retro masterpiece Woah Dave!, developed by MiniVisions. Released in 2014, updated in 2015 as Woah Dave! DeluxeWoah Dave! is everything I love about indie gaming. (This article refers to the Classic mode, unless otherwise noted.)

Woah Dave! in its original form is a single-screen action game reminiscent of post-Atari, pre-NES arcade games. You’re Dave. Dave is a yellow square with blue pants and big eyes. The PC version of the game features an option for a second player to take control of a second Dave. Each Dave has one hit point and no pennies. Eggs and explosive skulls fall from the sky. Eggs hatch aliens, skulls explode. Dave’s only method of self-preservation (and/or little green spacemen-murder) is to pick up either an egg or a skull and throw it.

Items and enemies drop pennies. As Dave, your job is to get rich and you will die trying. An intact skull can smash an egg on contact. An egg cannot smash another egg. Throwing either a skull or an egg will slay a hatched enemy. Exploding skulls destroy eggs and Daves but not other intact skulls. The lava at the bottom of the screen enrages aliens Super Crate Box-style and destroys anything else. Occasionally, a Whoa box appears, which, when thrown, wipes the board clean and leaves the pennies for Dave to pocket. If you require more “game” than this, then you might prefer the Deluxe mode which disguises the same gameplay with new characters, enemies, hazards, vehicles, and portals.

The genius of Woah Dave! is in the timing of its First In First Out spawn patterns, indicated by blinking visual cues, and the subtle polish of its controls and physics. If you hold the jump button, Dave kicks his legs and descends more slowly. Eggs and skulls have mass. They don’t bounce around like turtle shells in the Mario Bros. series. These details are essential to the game’s success. What could be a run-of-the-mill action-platforming game becomes something akin to a real-time resource management sim with twitch gameplay and action-platforming elements.

“Put this egg over here, put that skull over there, collect these coins, wait to collect those…”

In his Destructoid review of Woah Dave!, Johnathan Holmes points out the hallucinatory aspects of Dave’s adventure, how when Dave dies the world around him loses its absurd and menacing qualities. The lava falls away, buildings appear in the background, the aliens go back to their day jobs. I share his view and would add to it the following: While the juxtapositions of Woah Dave!’s imagery may be nonsensical (eggs and skulls falling like rain, arbitrary lava traps and disappearing platforms), the images themselves belong to archetypal symbolism. Eggs represent life, fertility, beginning. Pennies, which are ultimately of no consequence to the way the action plays out), represent futile earthly pursuits of status, wealth, fame. The blinking patterns represent the irreversible passing of time. Aliens are the menacing Unknown. Lava is lava. And you already know what the skulls mean, don’t you?

The skulls in Woah Dave! serve the same purpose as they serve in the memento mori tradition in medieval art. A memento mori is a fetish, nicknack, or emblem, oftentimes in the shape of a skull if not an actual skull, a commonplace reminder of one’s mortality. It says to onlookers, “Everything that lives will die.” Sisyphean in his resolve, Dave sees the terrible signs and forges ahead, anyway. Indie gaming needs more Daves, not fewer.

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Woah! More Daves, Please! A Timely Look Back at an Indie Classic — Gamemoir

Here’s a timely look back at Woah Dave!, the minimalist masterpiece from Choice Provisions (formerly Gaijin Games). For fans of indie gaming, news of another beloved studio’s shutdown is never inexplicable. It’s a tough business for indie devs. On April 7, 2016, Choice Provisions (formerly Gaijin Games), makers of the legendary Bit.Trip series, announced it…

via Woah! More Daves, Please! A Timely Look Back at an Indie Classic — Gamemoir

Soft to Solid: Blade Mode’s Inversions

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Who would you rather be? image credit: famousmonsters

The contemporary cybernetic resurrection of Metal Gear’s Raiden as a stealth-absconding robo-ninja warrior is the makeover nobody in the gaming world saw coming. In the heyday of the Playstation 2, when dinosaurs roamed the cellular networks and calls dropped like flies, Raiden’s debut in the stealth espionage game MGS2: Sons of Liberty polarized the global gaming community. Popular in Japan, derided in the West, he represented a radical departure from Solid Snake, the original protagonist not only of the previous entries in the Metal Gear series but also of the opening chapter of Sons of Liberty.

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image credit: deathbattlefanon

For some critics, the very sounds of his name (not “RAY-din,” but “WRY-din”) dredge up repressed memories of asking for the coolest tough-guy spy this side of MI6 and getting, instead, some doll-faced wannabe Dante (pictured above, left) with an inferiority complex and a bad case of motor-mouth. Readers who have not played Sons of Liberty, the embedded video is for you. This is Raiden, hunting the terrorist Solid Snake — but not The Solid Snake. Remember that these scenes are taken from a direct sequel to a game in which you play as Solid Snake, not Raiden, and Solid Snake is undeniably heroic (and not at all a terrorist). You can see how this nonsense might not go over so well.

Of all candidates to be turned into a time-bending cybernetic samurai for a contemporary AAA action game, Raiden might have been the darkest of the dark horses. In action movie terms, he was never a Murphy. How is he suddenly a top-of-the-line Robocop gone rogue? (Guns of the Patriots has the canonical explanation.)

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image credit: giantbomb

Reversals and re-characterizations are not unprecedented in the Metal Gear universe. James Clinton Howell has identified patterns of role inversion and toying with players’ expectations throughout the franchise. His entire study comes highly recommended. This article would not have been possible without his in-depth original research.

In a previous post, I pointed out similarities between the emotionalism of current-gen Lara Croft and that of Raiden. If you’re old like me and you lived through the Sons of Liberty debacle, you’ve seen the ire directed at Raiden. His name alone could have marked his stars as an unwelcome heir to a sacred gaming tradition. Let’s remember that Midway’s Raiden got top billing on the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie. Metal Gear’s Raiden was starting out in Frank Sinatra, Jr. territory.

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Raiden Wins. image credit: youtube

As it happened, Raiden’s disappointing quality grew out of more than ill-begotten nomenclature. Raiden was an embodiment of inexperience in the field. His wishy-washy personality, antithetical to Metal Gear’s legacy of cool masculinity, sealed his fate as a claim jumper. Ironically, perhaps, Raiden was intended to be an emotionally available sensitive-type to appeal to female gamers. Consider the following taken from an official design document obtained by Kotaku.

With Raiden (someone appealing to women), instead of Snake, as the main character, we will have a character in which women can more easily empathize. He is the antithesis of the older, hard-boiled image of Snake.

The document (here in full) gives the impression that a woman is not a person but a weakly encrypted algorithmic machine, one among many, all virtually the same in function if not in form.

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image credit: youtube

Raiden’s perceived femininity and Western fanboys’ categorical rejection of his personality were, in hindsight, sparks of bigotry becoming embers becoming a social trashfire becoming Gamergate. In our Gamergater-infested social media, some brave and intelligent gamers have explored the gaming industry’s attitudes towards the feminine mystique and, in return, found their private inboxes inundated with direct and often explicitly laid-out threats of personal violence from dumb hateful self-proclaimed “men.”

Misogyny, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia are different masks for the same stupid monster. The hatred of PS2-era Raiden shares a lineage with Gamergate-era hatred of DMC: Devil May Cry’s black-haired Dante.

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Not on new Raiden’s watch. image credit: ultraguy9000.deviantart

Both old Raiden and new Dante are whiny pretty-boy replacements for established tough-as-nails male heroes of franchises poisoned by arbitrary sex-inequality and heteronormative phallocentrism. If Sons of Liberty were available on Steam, its page would likely be given the “female protagonist” tag at some point. Games with heroes perceived as effeminate have been given this label on occasion, not by any company or marketing firm but by some classless clown with a Steam user account and at least a mild distaste for traditionally (i.e. arbitrarily) feminine traits.

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Raiden, bound, demoralized, interrogated, tortured, humiliated in Sons of Liberty. image credit: pscicocine

A simplistic notion of what women want leads, in turn, to a simplistic concept of womanhood. Stephen Keating over at Et Tu, Gamer? has shown how misogynistic and chauvinistic caricatures of femininity are the rule, not the exception, in the Metal Gear universe. It’s a franchise in which a woman can be an incompetent innocent to be protected, possessed, drooled over, patronized, et cetera; a scheming would-be helper who at the moment of truth is revealed to have been secretly malevolent all along; or just plain evil through-and-through.

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Revengeance concept art. image credit: wikia

In retrospect, early Raiden had no chance of winning the American gamer popular vote. Tough-guy Solid Snake goes in, single-handedly brings down a ship full of terrorists under cover of night. But it’s a trap! The heretofore unconquerable Snake goes missing, is presumed drowned. Fade to black. A soft-skinned wunderkind, who, like a bad drag queen with perfect hair, “skates on pretty,” comes out crying.

He’s tragically uncool. Consider the discussion of the cardboard box in the embedded video. Solid Snake can turn a cardboard box into a Future Solder’s cloaking device; Raiden can’t sneak past a pigeon without wrecking a perfectly good one-piece. Konami poked fun at Raiden’s decidedly mixed appeal in Snake Eater, Sons of Liberty’s direct sequel, by giving audiences the false impression that, despite the box art, this was yet another of Raiden’s misadventures — until the mask came off.

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Pictured: Snake. No, really. image credit: wikia

Raiden’s hotheadedness and refusal to listen to reason do not, in and of themselves, contradict the archetype of the American hero. Americans love closed-minded hotheads in movies and television shows. Why wouldn’t they love a closed-minded hothead in a video game with film-quality cinematography? Alas, the character of Raiden would have fit the archetype but for a conspicuous absence of rugged individualism, the primary ingredient in American heroism. He is needy. Neediness runs contrary to quintessentially American posturing and smells of pity, collaboration, collusion, Socialism.

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image and text credit: pageofreviews

Now, take a look at the breathtaking seven-minute trailer for Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.

Raiden’s transformation from a wretch to a savior is as dramatic as the absurd transformations promised by Pray the Gay Away fascistic re-education camps. He has been redeemed — a warrior, a “samurai.” The explicit designation of Raiden as a “samurai” here is telling. Consider the following excerpt originally taken from the work of Gary Leupp, quoted in this excellent article on homosexuality among samurai. The bracketed text is mine.

“Nanshoku [literally translated as ‘male colors,’ a phrase explicitly connected to homosexual longing among men],” according to the Nanshoku Yamaji No Tsuyu (Dew on the Mountain Path of Nanshoku, 1730), “is the flower of the military class.” The popular writer Ejima Kiseki (1667-1736) added, “Nanshoku is the pastime of the samurai. How could it be harmful to good government?”

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image credit: ign

The new cybernetic samuRaiden (slicing and dicing ladykiller extraordinaire) fits neatly in with the series’ longstanding traditions of flashy visuals, thrilling gameplay, haphazard storytelling, and problematic representations of the individual identities who comprise under-represented and routinely exploited social groups. By making Raiden conform to the same gender biases as Solid Snake, his one-time antithesis, MGR: Revengeance represents a new inversion of identities with the same old closed and broken value system. Per the embedded official trailer, Raiden was stripped of his dignity, “A Man forced to Kneel [and] Suffer,” but no more! Now, thanks to the magic of science, Raiden’s on top and his blade does the penetrating. Call it “progress.”

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image credit: robocop.wikia

Revolution Upon Revolution, Rejoice!

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image credit: gameinformer

This article is dedicated to the incomparable Chumbucket, the black-fingered hunchback with the best words in Avalanche Studios’ 2015 AAA action title Mad Max. Voiced by Jason Spisak, Chumbucket does not appear in Mad Max: Fury Road but he is the heart of the Mad Max licensed video game. A scarred mutant, Chumbucket thrives in the wasteland left over from when the world was killed. In the wasteland, meaning is hard to come by. Speaking feverishly, Chumbucket breaks down the grammatical vehicle into its noisy parts, strips it down to its frame, retools its engine, and puts it back together one piece at a time. Chumbucket says his Magnum Opus is the perfect 8-cylinder car, the plans for which he has scrawled on the wall, but this is a lie: His real Magnum Opus is the stream-of-consciousness blithering with which he livens up a dead world.

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image credit: wikia

It is a very dead world, indeed. Bleakness made beautiful, Mad Max’s wasteland is a junkyard playground for DIY anarchists and nonsense-spouting mechanics. The star of Mad Max is neither Max himself nor Chumbucket but the nightmarish scenery. In an industry fraught with game franchises featuring soulless post-apocalyptic scenarios, Mad Max’s wasteland setting is gorgeous and thoroughly realized.

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image credit: reddit

The world of Mad Max is completely scarred by the violent dissolution of the old order. This means massive shipwrecks in the sand dunes and other mean evidence of a past where water must have been abundant. The game’s wasteland (different in some respects from that of the Fury Road movie) is divided into Gas Town, The Great White, and Dead Barren’s Pass, each with its own distinct flavor of post-apocalyptic devastation, each crawling with ramblers and ne’er-do-wells who spit vitriol as backwoods preachers are wont to do in our world. Evidence suggests that the apocalyptic event was a nuclear one. Skeletal remnants of a lost civilization’s structural feats of Ozymandian hubris have become valuable scrap heaps for the War Boys, a deranged collective of sand pirates who reap chaos with a fervor explicitly religious and ritualistic in character.

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Traditionally, the Apocalypse (there can be only one) indicates not a nuclear holocaust but rather Revelation on a universal scale. All becomes clear, the veil of deception is lifted, the doors of perception are cleansed, et cetera.

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image credit: lifehackquotes

As the Bookish (though not bookish) parse it, the Apocalypse is a once-and-done divine judgment, a final reckoning, an expression of love and wrath as political and as societal as it is spiritual and metaphysical. All humanity must suffer its truth. How your immortal soul fares depends on which aspects of the mythos you’ve chosen as your favorites, as well as which Holy Holy Holy! edition of the Saints’ Dungeon Master’s Guide you’re picking and choosing your rules from.

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image credit: pinterest

In our own pre-apocalyptic world, authorities decry the vulgar chaos of slang, invoking religious tenets to crush any free-thinking, meaning-making, hooligan individualists. Though transubstatiated beyond immediate recognition, the language of religious authority retains its influential awesomeness even when put by blasphemers to secular use. This is a big deal to the Bastards on high. When a low-born wretch abuses the Word in this way, he besmirches the holiest of the Establishment’s relics: Round-the-clock maintenance of absolute social control by means of invoking some fragile yet essential purity, which must be protected from strange pollutants and new ideas.

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image credit: pbworks

Consider now the secular appropriation of apocalypse in this context. We heathens describe catastrophic, life-changing — but not world-ending — events as apocalyptic. We set stories, movies, and video games after the death of the world. In the case of the secular appropriation of apocalypse, the purported purity in danger is ironically the purity of the horror of the Biblical event. In secular usage, an apocalypse is a standard revolution of the wheel of creation and destruction. The Old Way falls away and with it, its habits, its prescriptive grammar, its word-meanings both sacred and profane. The survivors are left behind to pick up the pieces and start the wretched cycle of cutthroat sectarianism anew. “We’re not talking about a learning experience or a new beginning,” warn the self-proclaimed originators of the word. “Your sinful soul will be judged! No take-backsies! Now, fall in line — or else!” These are the risks we take when we steal others’ special words.

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image credit: tumblr

Secularization of religious language is at the soul of Chumbucket’s appeal. He calls Max “Saint.” He is ever praising, testifying, proclaiming, “Praise be! Praise be!” His exaltations belong as much to old time religion as to his garrulous eccentricity, his own individualistic audacity. When Chumbucket praises the “tranny on high” for his good fortune, we are just as quick to imagine a benevolent omniscient transsexual in the sky as we are to imagine the Holy Transmission of some god-car on the highways of Valhalla. In the same stream of consciousness, Chumbucket’s cries of “revolution upon revolution, rejoice!” mimic the physical motions of an 8-cylinder internal combustion engine, the next-best thing to the cyclical rhythms of a living world.

Addendum: Here’s a video for my Kickstarter which expires May 14. If you liked this article, please show your support!

Direct link to the project:

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Post-Apocalyptic Production Values

A note to my loyal readers: Freelancing is fun and exciting and hard, hard work. Let me make it up to you.

Now that that’s out of the way, let me bring you up to speed. A new feature-length article is in the works and should hit the internets (all of ’em) sometime tomorrow. It deals with big budget AAA post-apocalyptic action titles — and the radioactive linguistic anomalies that emerge shortly after the roaches claim their inheritance.

Here’s a teaser: Big game studios routinely scavenge the least unsafe neighborhoods of revolutionary themes for the raw materials out of which they construct AAA post-apocalyptic action games. The scraps of ideological content are then sanitized, reshaped to the brink of recognition, and trucked out and sold to the huddled masses. The final products arrive as fresh-faced entertainments to be consumed in the comfort of your own unshakable establishment. This pattern is true of all action game protagonists: Che goes in, Rico comes out.

Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion.

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All the Rage

In Kung Fury: Street Rage, the two-button endless beat-’em-up video game released simultaneously with the Kickstarter-funded eponymous 1980s grindhouse-chic short film (embedded below — caution: NSFW language and gratuitous hilarity), the Nazi war machine time travels to 1985 and does battle with Kung Fury himself, the best cop in the world.

Led in the film by a Kung Fu Hitler caricature – an unappealing phantom menace at the podium with neither a Goebbels to run the social media campaign nor an Eichmann to handle the grisly logistics and exquisite cowardice, the Nazis are the same hateable guys as they were in The Last Crusade, dressed here in the black gas masks of Wolfenstein: The New Order’s black military uniforms. You play as Kung Fury and you cannot win. The Nazis keep coming at you. (Consider Extra Credits’ musings on the similarly endless gameplay mechanics of Missile Command embedded below.) You lose your three hearts, fall at their greasy fascist boots. By the same token – more specifically, by the next token – you rise and, as in infinite runner games, the pattern begins anew. No end in sight.

Spoiler: The film’s absurd narrative – in effect, a prequel – culminates with the down but not out Kung Fuhrer himself escaping via time travel to the present, protected by his mechanical golden eagle. End Spoiler. If one accepts that there is a narrative to be found in the game, the narrative relies on a conceit of eternal struggle between the righteous and the tyrannical. Tricericop, the machine gunning viking, and Hackerman (the greatest hacker of all time) stand on the sideline and watch the action unfold like the audience members in a Street Fighter level. They are scenery, non-sentient, inconsequential, more like filler pixels than NPCs. The fight is not theirs to join. They will not play a role in the action. Spoiler: Lest they fall as Kung Fury’s first partner falls in the film, cut in twain in the street. End Spoiler. The game’s street is not theirs to rage in. This is between Kung Fury and the Nazi kung fu war machine.

image credit: sociorocketnewsen

If you have not seen the movie and you play the game, nothing directly tells you killing time traveling Hitler is your goal. With only the roof-top jump animation as exposition, the game comes across as an existentialist thought experiment. Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better: The Game.

The gas masked foot soldiers, the lumbering arcade console monsters, the ninja blondes, the Aryans with two hit points may march menacingly towards you but your truest enemy is yourself. Your willing executioners are tangential, coincidental. Their deaths become collectively a means by which you beat your “Personal Best” high score.

image credit: pocketgamer

Although you do not win, the Nazis do not win either. When you have fallen, they stop their advance and stand and occupy the street with remarkable purposelessness, banal reminders of the military foolishness of their real-life doppelgangers.

Gat Country

Bro up! The dogs of war are at the door – and they brought aliens.

image credit: minus

image credit: minus

Free Lives hinted at a forthcoming alien invasion with the addition of Ellen Bropley some months back and Broforce has made contact with the Housekeeping Update. A word against reading on: In smash.the.game.state fashion, this post is not a review. The merits of Broforce will not be discussed. Rather, this post seeks to smash into Broforce and muse on the starstuff pixels exploding from it like spiders across the stars. Maybe you’ve heard this one before: Sagan, Kerouac, and Thompson were on the road somewhere outside Barstow, near the Pale Blue edge of the desert… Broforce’s crow-murder of expendable heroes is decadent and depraved. And like the work of Sagan, Kerouac, and Thompson, it expresses some hard truths about the American Dream.

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The South Africa based team at Free Lives has said in interviews that the intent of the game is to be “fun” without the appeals to “emotion” which, far too often, sap the fun out of gaming. (Examples: the sudden addition of emotionalism into Bulletstorm’s climax or pretty-when-she-cries Lara Croft looking extra pretty crying muddy in the firelight. An argument could be made to include Max Payne’s brand of humorous self-pity on the list.) Seeking to eliminate emotion from the picture, Free Lives identifies the game’s inspiration in that half-cocked juggernaut of consumer paraphernalia – 1980s and 1990s American action films.

That is to say, popcorn entertainment, something to stare at until you fall asleep on the couch. Guns, muscles, ‘splosions. Nevermind the Reagans with their brand new bag of the same old dirty tricks, the Jack Thompsons and the Tipper Gores, nevermind the regularly scheduled programming CNN interrupted to bring the SMF friends of Twisted Sister (link contains NSFW language) into your living room.

Broforce is a new game with old blood, a new cage built out of familiar bones. Out of one medium’s deconstruction (i.e. film’s) emerges a new whole – an altogether new construction in a different medium (i.e. video games) vis a vis capitalism’s ongoing assimilation of post-modern sensibilities. Forged in a similarly exquisite hell as was Renegade Ops, Free Lives’ Broforce conflates the action hero’s violent acts with acts of “liberation.”

To liberate an area implies a pre-existing condition of oppression in the area. Legitimate armies move to liberate an oppressed people from an oppressor. In modern language, the word used for the oppressor is the foreign-sounding “regime,” from the French for “regimen” – a dose of poison, if you will, on which the liberating forces act as activated charcoal. State 2 must act in the name of State 2’s people to rescue State 1’s people from State 1. Even if State 1 was here first.

image credit: google search

image credit: google search

Broforce can be interpreted as a parody, accidental or otherwise, of unilateral military action carried out by military contractors at the behest of the United States “government” (see also: state, regime), as evinced by a common pattern of gameplay. Broforce action hero takes ground, kills occupiers, flies the star spangled banner over the rubble and bones. Does not rinse off blood.

image credit:  game-sphere

image credit: game-sphere

Action hero repeats until the devil comes down to Vietnam. Action hero kills the devil – an incarnation of evil in a suspiciously Western suit and black tie.

image credit: google search

image credit: google search

Action hero hops on helicopter, and the area is carpet bombed into liberation. Obliteration is liberation and freedom is the only way, yeah.

image credit: blogspot

image credit: blogspot

Google “Broforce Murrica,” Murrica being a distinctly Texan pronunciation, and you would think by the results (as one reviewer suggests in an Early Access review) that the game is expressly concerned with parodying the Bush Doctrine of foreign policy and unilateral military action. In Broforce, good Americans (the few, the proud) take up arms and go to war with the devil, fighting to the last man. Linking Broforce directly to Texas is Brodell Walker, a play on the name of Chuck Norris’ character from his “Walker, Texas Ranger” TV show, itself the spiritual heir to the John Wayne mystique. Chuck Norris’ internet celebrity as the indomitable lawman from Texas owes as much to his action films as it does to the Alamo and its memory — not to mention the untimely loss of Bruce Lee.

American gamers can find a more useful interpretation of Broforce’s phantasmagoria of American M-16s on rock-n-roll in a jungleland full of inhuman foes (now more explicitly inhuman, with the addition of alien enemies in the November 2014 build), an interpretation inspired neither by the Bush Doctrine nor by the old chants of “Hey, hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” Nor is the appropriate reading dependent on assertions found in the liner notes of Lee Greenwood’s Proud to Be an American. Rather, I’d gladly stand up and argue that Broforce may, and should, be used to tell scary truths about American idealism, imperialism, and identity. As the developers say, their purpose was to make something new, a game you couldn’t make in the ’80s or ’90s.

I suggest that, by turning Broforce’s farcical nation-building guns on ourselves (boom-boom-boom, area liberated!), we can better understand the roots of the Great contemporary political Divide in the present-day U.S. of A. My reasoning for this begins here: Broforce is Free Lives’ South African take on an ultraviolent selection of Americana. As such, it is an effort of outsiders looking in. Adroit pop cultural emulation all but guarantees that idiosyncrasies invisible to the cultural native who has been conditioned to overlook them, will find daylight. Perpendicularly, same point, different axis of intersection: A new perspective brings its own selective blindness.

Take, for instance, this rhetorical from a developer: “Who would want to play a game about a South African action hero?” As an American with little experience of South African pop culture and littler comprehension of the broader cultural mentality, I think Nelson Mandela: Aparteid Smash, written by J.M. Coetzee, scored by Die Antwoord and narrated by Ninja, and with a visual aesthetic akin to District 9‘s playful-miserable grays-and-goops. And then I exclaim, “Yes! Let’s make this happen! To Kickstarter!” The developer provides a humorously inappropriate and (it would seem) distinctly South African example of his own. The punchline is lost on the British interviewer.

Good thing Broforce is just mindless entertainment. No politics, all fun. Otherwise, I would have you consider the chart below, comparing American Jim Crow laws with South African Apartheid.

Compare and Contrast: Apartheid and Jim Crow Laws

Jim Crow Laws Apartheid
General Explanation State and local restrictions based on “separate but equal” status for black Americans.  These circumstances led to “dejure segregation”  “apartness” system of legal racial segregation enforced by the National Party of South Africa.  “Minority rule” by white people was allowed by Dutch descendants. 
Timeline 1867-1965 1948-1994
Classifications Black vs. White Black, White, Colored, Indian
 Location State and Local level (United States) National Level (South Africa)
 Examples of Segregation Voting restrictions, segregation of public restaurants, facilities, schools, etc. Segregation of education, medical care, forced separation, etc.
Overturned Various Civil Rights Rulings:Brown v. Board of Education (1954)Civil Rights Act (1964)Voting Rights Act (1965)  Democratic elections in 1994 allowed the ANC’s (African National Congress) Nelson Mandela to become South Africa’s first black President.[data, text, and chart credit: africanafrican.com]

The similarities noted above suggest that racist social policies (associated with the American South though found throughout the Union, too) share a kinship with Apartheid. Bearing in mind the legacy of Jim Crow in the South, we see that Broforce’s American huah bravado-as-substance is cut not from the cloth of the stars and stripes of the state of the Union (displayed prominently in the game) but, rather, from the stars and bars of the old Confederacy. Broforce serves as a remarkable image of Rebel Proud hubris and Republic of Texas bullheadedness, cast as it were in the red, white and blue of their mutual Union aggressor. Such is the duality of the Southern Thang.

The disgusting contingencies leading up to the divide at the Mason-Dixon line and those leading up to the Apartheid are beyond the scope of this post. Within scope, we can, and should, consider contemporary South African and American identities as scarred by institutionalized racism and, in a sense, unReconstructed. The racist practices of capitalism persist. In America, the institution of slavery has been re-branded and hidden from public view.

To the contemporary Yankee sensibility, the Rebel Proud phenomenon seems a ruse for racists, the stars and bars a klansman’s daytime hood. “What about Sherman’s March to the Sea, where the Union systematically trounced their cotton-pickin’ asses, do they fail to comprehend?” asks the Yankee. But the inquiry ends prematurely. “They must just all be racist idiots.” (Never a good blanket statement to make about a group.) Therefore, the Yankee mentality concludes, the flag must go. Down slams the star-spangled gavel. Case closed.

image credit: google search

image credit: google search

Of course, to destroy a symbol is to reinforce its legitimacy in the eyes of its followers. Rebel Proud, as a phenomenon, relies on the conceit that Lincoln’s unilateral action against his own people (history repeating playin’ reruns) marked a grave injustice – bloodthirsty persecution of women and men by a traitor charged to protect them and serve them.

To a Confederate loyalist, first blood is and will always remain on the tyrant Lincoln’s hands and the insurrection is a just response to “Northern aggression” from overzealous Feds. Our hypothetical Confederate loyalist is hypocritical when he forgets or overlooks the brutality of the inexcusable economic institution in whose defense he has taken up arms. (Fact: The first blood of the American Civil War was African and it was shed in a slaveship, centuries before the first shot rang out at Fort Sumpter.) Is our Confederate loyalist a wealthy Southern Democrat hellbent on continuing his own tyranny? Is he not a rich man but rather the vassal of one, willing but not without misgivings to do his boss’s bloody bidding? Is she a Southern belle comfortable in her position of stature and willing to hear the spinning wheel wear out the fingers of innumerable slavegirls to spare her own’s becoming hard and unladylike? Is she a worker, a servant, who sees collaboration as an ugly necessity and joins the war effort because she can knit or cook or carry supplies or tend to wounds and after all everyone she knows has joined up? Maybe for some, joining up was never about ideology but rather a compulsion brought on by waking up to the barn burning or receiving a letter from your sister-in-law that says your only brother bled out in a hog pen and they just left him there like a butchered animal an’ you sware vengeance ‘fore God Almighty ‘gainst the devils in the blue what put your brother in an early grave. Suddenly, the big war effort seems tangential, circumstantial, an unimportant prelude to the vendettas that steer the affected generation’s fates and the blood feuds which will plague the descendants.

Vendettas and blood feuds shape consciousness. Those who identify as coming from a military family talk about the “tradition” of joining the armed forces. They remind us of the local character of war. “Sit yourself down and hear tell about the wars what my daddy and granddaddy fought.” The specifics of the conflict are insubstantial in comparison to the sense of fulfilling one’s duty in service, of keeping the tradition alive. Bleed all you can bleed for the sacred blood feud. Make daddy, God, and country proud.

Simulations of the mass murder and pillaging which characterized Sherman’s March to the Sea would be right at home in Broforce’s jungle hellhole. Just think: Brodell Walker in place of the Man with No Name wandering into the Good dead space between the Bad and the Ugly. All it would take is another conceit, akin in absurdity to the one that allows for an army of battle-ready suicide bombers and certainly less absurd than balaklava wearing warriors allying themselves with aliens to fight American action hero ripoffs in a fully destructible Vietnam wrought with death-bringing mechs and Metal Sluggish helicopter war machines designed by Early Cuyler.

image credit: google search

image credit: google search

Consider the prevalence of depictions of violence against people from Asia and the Middle East in contemporary games marketed to continental Americans and Western Europeans, each Western entity with an astonishing track record of committing actual real-life obliterating violence in the name of liberation. In gaming media, pictures of liberation and obliteration continue to be made from the perspective of the liberators and not the liberated. Despite the emptiness of its bravado and its farcical presentation, Broforce does little to discourage the ugly tradition in game design of putting the player in the Western oppressor’s boots.

Local manifestations take precedence. Always. As a parting thought, I would have the reader consider Carl Sagan’s comments on the Pale Blue Dot photo. “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us… etc., etc.” sounds real nice, but his intention was not to say something cool to go on that poster in your dorm room, Bro.

image credit: theswash

image credit: theswash

Sagan’s intent — stated in the paragraphs immediately following the famous one, and in his later books — was to “underscore[sic] our responsibility” to avoid violent means and seek peaceful resolution in this terrifying nuclear age. We might say, with the same sentiment, that from the perspective of the Voyager 1 every war is a civil war. Brothers killing brothers, bros killing bros… Shudder at the thought but save your breath, bro. In space, no one can hear you scream.

Sticks, Stones, and Snakes on a Dame: The Ballad of Tomb Raiden

Consider Lara Croft’s character in the above ad for the Game of the Year reissue of 2014’s Tomb Raider. Down, down she tumbles into the tomb like Alice into Wonderland, crying out like any number of woman-in-peril tropes. (Was she pushed?) “Ugh! I hate tombs!” she exclaims and stands still for the camera to remind us that she is still cute under all that dirt. Then she slips. A common motif.

A pattern emerges in 2013’s Tomb Raider: Lara meets (or, rather, is confronted by) a new obstacle, Lara emotes frustration, Lara cheers herself on with Rosie the Riveter’s can-do spirit – a gal in a guy’s dangerous world. Acting as her own Number-One Fan, Lara embodies problematic aspects of classical femininity, such as ambivalence, feeling too much and thinking too little, and not the boyish naivete common to hero narratives but its ditsy sister, innocence. A hero begins naïve, becomes wise. Our heroine begins innocent. What’s the opposite of innocent? Fallen, besmirched, corrupted.

A reboot differentiates itself from a shot-for-shot remake with a new story arc for an old story, so let’s look at Tomb Raider’s new beginning and ending. (For corroboration’s sake, please refer to the first minute and last minute of the embedded video.)

In the exciting opening cut scene we see Lara rescued from drowning by a man’s outstretched hand, strong, assertive. “In our darkest moments,” Lara says in voice over, as we watch her panic and scream for help. She goes on: “We find something, something that keeps us going.” The screen cuts to black, followed immediately by the thrust of a man’s strong arm to save her. So this “something” that “we find” is not an internal resolve (gender neutral, available to all) but an external male-gendered power on whom we must rely and in whom we must have faith.

Before the player has any control over this new Lara, she owes her survival to a man. Is this the root of her need for affirmation throughout the adventure? He saved her, she could have died. Lara Croft – once the bossy confident femme fatale – now, for better or worse, meets danger with self-addressed cheering. At press, tellingly, a commenter exclaims on one post of the game’s cut scenes, “I remember when [Lara] was a bad ass who kicked ass, took names without taking punishment,” calling the new Lara “whiny.”

image credit: deviant art

The game’s final screen spells out tritely in super-imposed text the game’s tagline, “A Survivor is Born.” Are we to imagine that the bulk of the game’s action has occurred either in a birth canal or in utero, that every scrape and scratch and bloody murder has been a formative influence, a translation of RNA to DNA, an opportunity to grow? Kill by kill, our fetal hero overcomes another trouble to survive and be a survivor; she will survive, keep on survivin’. For our newborn survivor, to kill is to self-actualize; to give bloody birth to herself.

Complying with established tropes and indulging game-playing misogynists, the game presents an antisexualistic cosmic reality, supernaturally influenced and organized by a goddess, at that! – in which the only good virgin is a sacrificed virgin, sacrificed by copulation or crucifixion, by transubstantiation or by fire, as Lara’s friend Sam will learn.

According to the commercial spot as history lesson above, if some developers had got their way (conversation begins at 3:37), Lara herself would have been such an ill-fated lamb, trapped forever under the weight of a collapsing tomb. Just desserts for a disobedient woman, symbol of the tyrannical feminine, wannabe “Taskmaster.” (Listening to these guys bro out, we commend Lara’s creator Toby Gard for disavowing the character, as he did back in 1996, because he disagreed with the misogynistic direction the direct sequels were heading.)

image credit: fakeposters

The third act plays out as a new, if not particularly inventive, position for the old princess-saving ceremony, set to the slam-bang tune of “Bring Us the Girl. Wipe Away the undead samurais.” Sam acts, or rather is acted upon, as the Princess Toadstool to Lara’s Mario, Zelda to Lara’s Link. Lara equivocates her own murderous actions to defenses of Sam’s girlish innocence in peril. Sam prizes her good name and its accompanying perceived purity, the source of her worth as an object without personal agency. If the new Tomb Raider has a romantic element, it is Lara’s obsession with Sam. Brave souls with time to kill can check out the corner of YouTube featuring scenes between Sam and Lara set to songs such as “She Will Be Loved” and, more fittingly, the stalker anthem “Every Breath You Take.” (You can find that one on your own.)

Before? image credit: cosplay cavern (possibly nsfw)

Try this experiment: Reassign our protagonist’s sex, make a he of our she. Diminish none of the hyper-sexuality. Rather, transform our combat-ready Aphrodite into Mars the rake, a war-god ready for love: expand the frame, broaden the shoulders, deflate and reshape breasts into powerful pecs, chisel out a six-pack (inguinal crease included), accentuate the muscles of the back, shape the thighs and calves with hypertrophic definition. Finally, and this is an all-important step, cram lust objects of impractical, if not impossible, dimensions down his pants. The public wants to see their shapeliness outlined in the fabric around the front zipper of the BDUs. Where once the jiggle determined an object’s desirableness, let there be engorgement.

After? image credit: google image search

“I can do this,” says our new male-identified protagonist. He is his own greatest cheerleader. Examples exist, in the action-adventure genre of the game state, of male characters talking to themselves, expressing self-doubt, mocking their own foolishness, even giving themselves a little pep-talk. But can we find a male equivalent of Lara’s self-abasing emotionalism, her sheepishness, her incessant need for affirmation from external sources? I can think of one in particular.

Whine on, you crazy diamond. image credit: google image search

Whine on, you crazy diamond. image credit: google image search

Mixed Media Platforming

A wire of recent events: controversial game designer cancels anticipated sequel to brilliant debut, announces exit from industry; reclaims spotlight on April 1, declares return to industry and reactivation of sequel project.

image credit: games reviews

image credit: games reviews via google

image credit: front towards gamer

image credit: front towards gamer via google

The fates of two mythic figures come to mind: Icarus, his wings singed, falls back to earth; Sisyphus, existentialism’s unwitting posterboy, feels the boulder slow, stop, and roll against his will. Icarus for his direct disobedience of his father’s low-flying wishes, Sisyphus for his condemnable cunning and mendacity, each must answer to punishment administered by gravity. Indeed, in reflection, we associate the arbitrary force of gravity with the transformation of hubris into humility. We return, and we are returned, to earth.

Our avatar pauses at the edge to look out at the emptiness between this lonely platform and that lonely platform. We understand – perhaps better than he does, if he has yet to fall – the great tyrant oppressing him is gravity. He leaps and falls in accordance with inalienable physical law. Our side-scrolling avatar moves not through but across the world in leaps and bounds. In the early days of side-scrolling platforming, he even found his identity in his work. He was a jumpman.

image credit: Michael Todd Games

image credit: Michael Todd Games

In this post, we bear in mind the fates of Icarus and Sisyphus as we explore two pieces of the modern platforming revival, each game unique and vital to the discourse: Trapdoor and Polytron Corporation’s 2012 release FEZ, a two-and-three dimensional shape-shifter about a two-dimensional character named Gomez who embarks on a quirky non-violent quest for three-dimensionality, created by a subject of a polarizing controversy; and Michael Todd Games’ 2013 release Electronic Super Joy, an orgiastic EDM-cranked adventure of an absurd hero (survivor of the Disco Wars of 1515, etc.) on a heretical quest to reacquire his missing butt by any means necessary.

image credit: Michael Todd Games

image credit: Michael Todd Games

In each of these examples, gravity plots to fulfill its dirty promise of violent death but of the two games only ESJ features enemy combatants. We must acknowledge FEZ’s revolutionary pacifism, its fulfillment of the promise to create compelling gameplay without violence, without enemies. We can see FEZ, also, as a return to puzzle-focused jumpman form for the platforming genre.

FEZ starts twice in the first five minutes of the game: first in 2-D, coming across as a fresh interpretation of Cave Story until, just as the story gets going, the game crashes, mimicking the sudden pixel-platters and atonal whining of an NES game on the fritz. We endure a false BIOS screen and return to the start screen in 2-D with 3-D rotation and a new pixel-and-polygon art style. Gomez can have his power to transcend dimensional limits. He must yet answer to gravity. Physical law maintains governance over his existence, should he jump too early or too late; should he linger for too long in the sky.

image credit: Polytron Corporation

image credit: Polytron Corporation

Viewed from our angle, FEZ represents equal parts genius innovation and reckless ambition. We liken Gomez’s adventuring between dimensions to Icarus’s soaring on wax wings in the sunshine. (Permit us, now, a diversion into poetics, as it will serve to inform more directly topical judgments of FEZ.) As the speaker of W. H. Auden’s poem Musee des Beaux Arts sees a guiding hubris in Brueghel’s Icarus, we see in Gomez a guiding hubris, a desire to explore forbidden dimensions of experience. For Icarus, it was the air; for Gomez, it is the third dimension of space. Auden, a radical of the written word, slips revolutionary values between stanzas. His speaker points out the cold responses of the countryfolk to the tragic drowning of Icarus. We do not stop to take in the suffering of Icarus. Life goes “dully along.” This, we are told, is the “human position” of suffering.

image credit: Polytron Corporation

image credit: Polytron Corporation

FEZ’s breakout moment arrived in the 2012 documentary Indie Game: The Movie. We learn that its creator, Phil Fish, has scrapped his FEZ designs and started anew multiple times. He discusses early projects, demos an experimental game prototype by sitting and staring into the flickering lights of a home-made Virtual Boy, intent on altering his perception. (Perhaps a carryover from this earlier work, flickering shapes figure prominently in FEZ.) He shares upsetting details of his personal life and brings up suicide, with a disquieting deadpan sincerity, as an option for himself, were FEZ to fail. (Those among us who have stood on the ledge and stared out into the abyss withhold judgment.)

A similarly tragic eccentric, Albert Camus reads into the myth of Sisyphus his deliberately absurd, suicide-contemplating brand of existentialism. The myth tells the story of a prideful king condemned to roll a stone up a hillside, watch it roll back down, and do it again. Camus’ macabre takeaway from the story suggests Sisyphus finds angry satisfaction in the inherently meaningless struggle. “We must imagine Sisyphus happy,” goes his most famous contribution to the discourse, challenging us to create meaning from chosen suffering.

Battle-hardened gamers bring a similar contempt to hardcore platforming. Run, jump, fall, die. Again. Run, jump, strike, miss, fall, die. Again. No satisfaction, no check point. Back to the start. Run, not fast enough. Again. Continue? Of course, continue. Dead. Back to start. Try again. Having fun yet?

image credit: Michael Todd Games

image credit: Michael Todd Games

Cold and merciless to human suffering, the world keeps turning, and we arrive at the traditional two-dimensionality and ecstatic boom-ba-doom-boom bass in Electronic Super Joy. In this 2013 release from Michael Todd Games, we take control of a one-armed, one-eyed, legless, entirely butt-less individual in an absurd cubic world divided into four sets of levels. ESJ’s level design brings to mind Braid‘s rule-making and rule-breaking puzzle sequences. One level bestows a smashing new ability upon our avatar, another redefines gravity’s intensity, still another trades smash in for the double-jump. Musically, the thump-tick thump-ticking soundtrack fades out and in, some intervals eight-bars, some four-, others sixteen-bars. Like any good rave, Electronic Super Joy’s world is populated by benevolent head-bobbing shadow-dwellers, hot-and-heavy howling, heresy-enthusiasts, rainbow-trails, and sudden comedowns.

As a genre, platforming experiments with perception by attaching player-constructed meaning (and high-stakes immediacy) to relationships among physical bodies. In other words, we base our avatar’s actions, first and foremost, on changes of shapes (i.e. platform, abyss, enemy rocket nearing our precious one hit-point wonder of an avatar, etc.) within our avatar’s immediate environment. An enemy rocket homing in on our avatar elicits action on the player’s part more intensely than, say, one’s desire to learn the details leading up to the Disco Wars of 1515. Shots fired danger-close turn each survivor of the attack into either an absurd whisky priest or a meaning-making existentialist. ‘Fraid we’re all outter whisky, Bub…

Michael Todd, creator of ESJ, gives lectures which put game design in multiple contexts, intermingling suggestions regarding “lifestyle and balance for game developers” with insider info and strategies for the programmer wanting to stand out to an employer. Follow the link to Michael Todd’s legendary 2009 PAX lecture (great content, imperfect mic). Todd’s emphasis on positive coping strategies for programmers becomes more poignant in the context of Fish’s public meltdown. Game design is a solitary act, like writing strictly structured poetry, especially for independent programmers. Sitting alone with uncooperative myths and legends of your own creation, obsessing over them, working out the bugs. We do not excuse Phil Fish’s Twitter meltdown, public tantrums, and empty threat-making. We stand in solidarity with indie gaming innovation.

The topic’s gravity brings the post to a close as it began. Absent from the Indie Game: The Movie interview with Fish is FEZ’s irreverence and adventurousness. He seems defeated, bogged-down by ambitious vision. In the months following the interview, Phil Fish released FEZ to near universal acclaim. Then, quickly as he appeared, in a tradition borrowed from Hollywood actresses and musical prodigies, he abandoned his creative post, choosing exile over collaboration with a gaming industrial complex. At press time, the writer can only speculate as to whether Phil Fish has indeed returned to jotting notes for a sequel to his masterpiece (as we, along with louder voices in the industry, wish to believe).

In the meantime, in sincerity and goodwill, we must imagine Phil Fish happy.