“I don’t do a perfect Lynch impression off-hand, it took hours of practice,” Luke Palmer says, his words trailed by a humble chuckle. He’s the man spearheading Rhino Stew Productions, an experimental studio behind David Lynch Teaches Typing, a mid-90’s inspired tutorial game where the Americana all-star himself (or at least an impressive impersonation of him) runs you through the basics of typing on your shiny, brand new MacLaclantosh 900. But does the game portray the seedy underbelly of the American dream, or would I be better off smashing my head against a bathroom mirror? Let’s rock.
“There’s no real label to what we’re trying to do aside from creating very eclectic, quality narrative entertainment,” says Palmer.
Simultaneously apt and an understatement, in my personal opinion, as David Lynch Teaches Typing manages to capture the very ethos of Lynch impeccably – which is to be expected, with all the research that Palmer (no relation to Laura) carried out during development.
“I was watching a lot of footage of the behind-the-scenes that he did on Inland Empire because I wanted to know; how does David Lynch work? How does he communicate?”
That effort shows. David Lynch Teaches Typing is a bit of a slow burner for a 10-minute experience, and going into it I genuinely believed it would just be Lynch’s disembodied head educating me on the basics of touch typing. I was completely wrong of course, and before long the surreal snatched me out of the quaint mundanity I’d settled into. “NOW, PLACE YOUR ‘LEFT RING FINGER’ IN THE UNDULATING BUG NEXT TO YOUR KEYBOARD,” Lynch tells me in a frank and direct tone of voice. I mash every key to no avail, as none of those keys are an undulating bug.
The experience only sank further and further into the abstract and avant garde, with distorted, out of focus, whispering mouths and jarring technical glitches. And eventually, as the credits rolled, an intense conviction gripped me – I needed to go deeper, and explore this game in the only way I knew how… as if Lynch himself had directed the experience.
I’m a big Lynch fangirl. Twin Peaks is my favourite TV show (I even love the much-disputed Fire Walk With Me) and I appreciate the hypnagogic surrealism of Eraserhead and Blue Velvet’s portrayal of the American dream’s seedy underbelly, so I’d be embarking on my quest with plenty of know-how. And that quest? To over-analyse and interpret the real meaning behind David Lynch Teaches Typing.
I told Palmer of my intent, and asked him how successful he thought I’d be in my mission.
“I think people underestimate the value of what David Lynch was trying to accomplish in his filmmaking, and I think that the game very much embodies that … what I will say is, there are about five big clues to what the game is really about before the title screen shows up. Look closely – no one has seen them yet.”
If you haven’t played David Lynch Teaches Typing yet, I highly recommend you do so now as it’s both free and a ten-minute experience at most. For those of you with little time to spare, here’s a summary…
Atmospheric and reverberating chiptune music plays at a muted volume, as dark-red and white zig-zags scroll towards the left side of the screen, and fade to black. Hard cut to title screen, complete with the same zig-zags and a translucent pixel-art portrait of David Lynch, and after pressing any key to begin, Lynch says that he will teach the player how to become a ‘typing wizard,’ and a MacLaclantosh 900 computer appears on screen. After simple prompts to press the F and J keys on the keyboard, the player is then asked to press their finger on the ‘undulating bug’ next to the keyboard – a feat proved impossible, and after asking a second time, the game experiences a crash, and the standard typing fare continues.
Next, the player must hold down the A key, which triggers a series of violent and jarring glitches, and eventually transitions into a static and auditorily-oppressive cacophony of reversed laughter, silently-screaming mouths, a darkly-lit corridor overlaid on overlapping eyes staring into the top corners of the screen, squirming worms, and trembling graphics of an ear and an angry white rabbit. The undulating bug from earlier in the game pans across the screen, accompanied by the sounds of a crying baby, and a screaming mouth zooms towards the screen, before abruptly cutting to a ‘trial over’ screen directing the player to unlock the full game by going into the nearest bathtub and ‘make smacking noises with your hands until someone can assist you.’
When Lynch makes movies, his focus is less on narrative cohesion, and more on the emotions and feelings conveyed through the film that piece together to form a metanarrative – to be expected from a man who began as a painter. The plot of a Lynch movie isn’t where you’ll find meaning. The plot is simply a delivery mechanism that helps you understand the meaning of the emotions that you’ll feel. I’ve played David Lynch Teaches Typing many times, reviewed video footage, listened to isolated audio channels, even played back segments of the game in slow-motion. And I think I’ve figured out what this game is trying to tell us, using this framework to establish my theory.
As is to be expected, typing plays a large role in what Palmer tries to say with the game – earlier in his life he worked as a professional typing tutor, a job he didn’t enjoy.
“Especially when you’re getting kids to try and do it,” he says, “because it’s so slow and repetitive and boring. At first it’s fun, but by the 80th key the kids are just screaming at you, ‘I don’t wanna do–‘ and it’s literally a test of willpower.”
In making David Lynch Teaches Typing, Palmer is – whether consciously or not – placing us within the whirlpool of emotions that he himself felt as a typing tutor for children, and has made use of Lynch references and hypnagogic film theory to convey these emotions to an effective degree.
Opening the game with the scrolling floor of the Red Room from Twin Peaks tells us that the game will be uncomfortable – Twin Peaks is a tale of the inherent evil that men do in the world, and the Red Room represents a sort of in-between hell dimension. Its inclusion is the first clue. Palmer described his work as “its own kind of Lynchian hell.”
The undulating bug is Palmer’s own “homage to Eraserhead” with its inspiration drawn from main character Spencer’s child. Eraserhead is an almost autobiographical work representing Lynch’s anxieties and struggles with intimacy and fatherhood, the latter manifested in the form of a deformed, inhuman, and ever-sobbing baby. In David Lynch Teaches Typing, the baby, or ‘undulating bug,’ represents the children that Palmer once tutored. Touching the bug is impossible and removes agency, in much the same way as Palmer felt teaching children how to type was impossible.
And as the game descends into chaos and abstract body horror, you feel this avalanche of overwhelming dread and stress – the visuals are intense and overloading and it really is a “test of willpower,” as Palmer puts it, to get through it all. The shuddering ears are our own, shaken by the cacophony of noise, the white rabbits in dream analysis juxtapose the warmth associated with children with the nightmare that surrounds them, the reversed laughter is a reversal of what laughter represents and conveys fear and madness, and the screaming and crying from the mouths and the undulating bugs are the complaints of the children Palmer tried to tutor.
You’re probably thinking: am I right? Is this what the game is really about? And, well… that’s up to you. Play the game yourself and see how you feel about it – with a game as Lynchian as this, I’d feel remiss to impose concrete certainties. Lynch always stresses the importance of individual interpretations of his films, to find meaning in his works for yourself. David Lynch Teaches Typing is, in many ways, a Lynch film in the interactive medium, and to treat it any other way, even down to analysis, just wouldn’t feel right.
But for what it’s worth, I did ask Palmer what he thought, and he described my analysis as “a horrifyingly accurate assessment.”