Good day, children. Did you do your homework like I asked? You didn’t!? You urinated on your homework and then pinned it to the door of a church in a send-up of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses? How very punk. A gold star for you! Oh, look. You’ve eaten your gold star as an angry criticism of society’s hackneyed educational system of reward and punishment. Excellent! Have another gold star. You’ve eaten it again. I see. Right. No, I get it.
Regardless of whether you disobeyed my instructions (MAKE A GAME) many commenters left a lot of valuable feedback for me to ponder. We’ll be talking about some of those issues as we go but first here’s one from JackShandy that was particularly prophetic:
Scorpion Psychiatrists of Saturn ‘salright, son, but a real punk interviewer would’ve gotten the Crime Zone guy on the line. Also, I love your dress sense.
Thank you, Jack ‘NoTimeForSpacebars’ Shandy. The truth is, unbeknownst to you, I had in fact already spoken to the aforementioned developer, a certain Stephen Murphy, who many people will know as Thecatamites – creator of Crime Zone, Murder Dog IV and the superb Space Funeral.
But before I let you in on that chat, let’s take a brief look at these games:
In Murder Dog IV: Trial of the Murder Dog, you are a human-sized canine on trial at the Hague for various crimes against humanity, including the odd bit of genocide (check out the exhaustive trailer).
In Space Funeral, you are Philip, a physically contorted, manically depressed man/boy whose only companion is a horse with four human legs and a bloodied stump where its head should be.
In Crime Zone, you are ALL OF THE COPS. Really.
I think it’s fair to say these games fit in with the punk subgenre we’re postulating here, scrawled as they are in MS Paint or populated with characters made from clay or paper. But they also almost constitute a whole other surrealist genre all by themselves. So respected are these titles in the indie underworld that Thecatamites counts many well-known developers among his cult following, including Terry Cavanagh who you may remember as being responsible for young people the world over scarring the letters VVVVVV into their arms in masochistic rituals while howling chiptune at the moon.
But one of the most important things about Thecatamites’ work is its attitude to established genres, in particular Space Funeral’s hallucinogenic treatment of the JRPG. You start off in your home village, but it’s not a green, verdant village with smiling friendly neighbours. It’s a land of frowning purple trees and huge bloodied heads that act as hovels for the town’s unhinged, openly hostile residents. I’m not joking, these people live inside giant, rotting, bleeding heads.
You soon enter the house from every JRPG. You know the house I mean, the one full of people designed only as devices to teach beginners the ‘rules’. But it’s like walking into a psychiatric ward full of patients playing Super Nintendo. Listen to Muscle Hedonist (“If you use MORAL skills on an enemy, they may take a temporary vow of pacifism and refuse to attack!”) or bask in the enlightenment of Wise Muscle (“CRIMINALS are a cowardly and superstitious lot! They are weak against BIBLES!”) and you’re likely to come out more confused than when you went in, even though their guidance proves to have actual ramifications in the battles later on. Battles which are themselves mechanically traditional but thematically freakish. This is a JRPG no longer working in tropes, but in psychotropes.
This is the point I’m trying to make: Space Funeral recognises the rhetoric of the JRPG and pays respectful homage to it while simultaneously kicking it in the goolies. Every cliché of the genre is bowed to and then cleaved in half with a buzzsaw. But the important part here is the bowing. In an interview Thecatamites revealed exactly what’s involved in this love-hate relationship:
“I have mixed feelings about them, since while I do like a lot of stuff in jRPGs most of what I like consists of minor ephemeral details and weirdness. I really like that you can ride giant chickens around the place. I like world maps, and ridiculous enemy naming conventions (Puny Goblin / Warrior Goblin / Behemoth Goblin), and the bizarre speech patterns of NPCs, and the sense of exploration. I like that in 2D jRPGs house interiors are surrounded by this immense black void.
“Unfortunately in order to get to this stuff you generally need to plough through ridiculously long games full of generic plots and characters and grinding and all that stuff.”
And this is one way in which the punk rock narrative of the musical world is different from the burgeoning punk narrative of the gaming world. Whereas many punk rock celebrants warm themselves to the notion (rightly or wrongly) of adopting a ‘Year Zero’ attitude in which the old way of doing music needed to be wiped off the planet, many of the heroes of the punk movement in gaming have a certain degree of respect for the creative efforts of the old bedroom coders and wouldn’t dare suggest such a thing. But they are still going to get drunk and wreck the place.
Space Funeral is the perfect example of that. With the help of DIY program RPGMaker and MS Paint, it takes a species of game with an extremely strong framework, cuts off all its limbs and then sticks it back together. It’s the monster of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, horribly misshapen but oddly booksmart. Intellectually, it knows about all the moral and physical conventions that it must abide by. But is it going to? Ha! Ha! Ha!
And the ending. Oh, sweet heavens, that ending. No other game announces the staleness of a retired genre in quite the same way as Space Funeral. It is a decapitation, swift and deadly, and yet its swing is true. If you still haven’t played this game, it only takes 45 minutes to an hour – get it sorted. Add that to your homework. In the meantime, we had a chat with its creator, Thecatamites, about all sorts of different things. Over to you, bold text.
RPS: Thank you, Brendan. So, Thecatamites, you did an interview a while back in which you said you were inspired by the punk rock movement and I was hoping you’d give me an idea of exactly what you meant by that?
Thecatamites: I’m not sure I can. I guess there are a couple of aspects to it. One is the fact that punk is kind of this weird mix between a popular art and a critical movement, in a sense. I mean, if you look at what happened with actual punk bands, they often kind of – within a year or so – they’d moved on from actually making punk music. There were, you know, hundreds of fucking weird things going off in all directions all the time. But the actual event itself was more this point where there was a new thinking about music – or a new way of thinking about art and culture... So that was kind of exciting and it was my first introduction to thinking about that stuff since I was sixteen or so and it kind of stuck with me ever since. I guess part of it too was the DIY aspect. You could have the DIY stuff and you could have the democratic theory behind it, the idea that anyone could do it, anyone can do the stuff. But at the same time it was indeed surprising, it was sorta weird, it did go off in all these kind of unusual directions, so it wasn’t a kind of a ‘hobo genius’ thing at all. But, you know, kinda it was in parts. But mostly it’s a kind of strange mix between them. I’m not sure how to describe it.
RPS: When you say DIY what exactly do you use?
Thecatamites: I use Adventure Game Studio. I started out using RPGMaker – that was the year I started really working on games. It was what really got me into the whole thing. I kind of really hate using it but it was kind of fun to go back that one time [with Space Funeral]. I’m also learning Unity, to do 3D games. It’s going well because you can play with ideas of space that you couldn’t in a 2D game.
RPS: Do you think PC gamers are amenable to things made in this way, with simple game-making tools?
Thecatamites: I have no idea, I don’t really have much contact with them. They seem okay with pretty much everything, actually. I mean, most of the people who are playing seem to be people outside of the communities for those [tools]. It’s not really people who build their own stuff in RPGMaker, it’s not really people who build their own stuff in AGS who play them. I guess people seem to be mostly comfortable, without [carrying] any preconceptions. Which is probably a good thing since by the standards of the industry these engines themselves are quite primitive.
RPS: I’ve noticed punk games don’t appear to be as overtly political as their musical counterpart. Murder Dog IV seemed sometimes to be a political statement but then by the end it just makes fun by being so ridiculously apolitical. Is that something you meant?
Thecatamites: The weird thing is it actually started out as more political than it ended up being. And I sort of wish it had moved more in that direction partly because it seems more interesting to me now and partly because I like the idea of juxtaposing these different political statements and at the same time [including] this really monstrous, beyond evil, despicable humanoid dog mascot. It was kind of intended to be an ‘argument’ thing but an argument where one day a person would feed you these ideas but then the second day they’d try and go back in the other direction. In a sense the political and the ridiculous stuff were both ways of turning around swiftly and switching it up on people.
RPS: Is there something about that kind of undesirable character, but one who is also funny enough to be likeable, that appeals to you?
Thecatamites: It’s not so much [that they’re] undesirable... they’re kind of non-entities. Pretty much all the characters in my game are personality devoid. Or if they have a personality it’s a cartoon personality like one vocal tic or one way of speaking. That kind of personality. It’s brutally reducing them to these ridiculous characters. It’s like, if you played a videogame with 3D models like Ocarina of Time [the models] have this one animation that they do all the time. A kind of strange abstract way of moving or something like that. I dunno, that kind of appeals to me – the odd blankness to it.
RPS: Is this DIY game-making something that you’d like to see other people doing? Or would you feel like they’re encroaching on your space?
Thecatamites: Ach, Jesus no. Part of the reason I wanted to make games with paper and stuff like that was... when I started out making games... it was very much focused on technical skill where it was based on building your own title screens and elaborate custom graphics and if you couldn’t do that then you’re fucked basically. But I like the idea where anyone can do it and hopefully anyone would. Where people can kind of pick [things up] and add their style, just pick up anything and toss it in there without any real consistency... I’d love to see more people making games.
RPS: You tend to have more fun with your games, as opposed to making them angry or indignant – unlike the punk rock that inspired you. Is that something you agree with?
Thecatamites: Yeah, I think it is. I never really got into the entire anger thing in itself because to me the whole DIY thing was almost inherently a positive thing, almost inherently a celebratory thing, and inherently a thing which was fun. Only some people do it because of a pain you [might] need to express but it’s also a kind of way of getting out of that mindset.
RPS: Is there a particular reason you put humour before anger or politics?
Thecatamites: I dunno, I think... humour is a weird thing too. [Games] might seem funny to me – they are funny but they’re not intended to be comedy things in themselves. Humour is just part of the approach I like about punk in general or some aspect of punk. Where you kind of have this useful attitude of exploring what you’re doing... and playing with the devices. I can’t really put it into words, sorry.
RPS: Your games have ended up in the Pirate Kart and in Ludum Dare competitions. Is that just a way of trying to put your games out there for people to see?
Thecatamites: I dunno. I think I’ve only ever made two games that weren’t part of a limited edition contest or drive thing and they were both kind of bad games. I guess I enjoy entering these things because it forces you to enter a mindset which maybe isn’t as... if I’m working on other projects it’s always in danger of getting into that horrible egotistical mindset where you think, ‘Oh, this could be the best one ever, I’m going to put so much stuff in this. I’m gonna put this in and this...’ And you kind of end up sinking under the weight of that and it gets boring to do. And it generally turns out that every six months or so I kind of look back over what I’m doing and think, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ. How did I ever think that was a good idea?’ But a two day contest is great because it kind of negates this process. It’s compressed so the boring bits get weighed out by the exciting bits. Finding out about the theme or mechanic or going for one thing or another, coming back with some rough idea. Then, the thing is, you turn out that rough idea because it turns out to be shit while you’re making it and you just come up with something off the top of your head and that uses aspects of what you were originally trying to do and then it kind of mutates, so it keeps things interesting for you. In a way it pushes you outside yourself. There’s really no time for bullshit. You come up with something that sounds vaguely good and then you sketch it out and you might not have time to [do it all] but you’re probably stuck with it after that and you just have to see what works in it. It probably would be something you would do if you were on your own and as a serious project. But just working in a way like that, with limited material, can be a way of surprising yourself. Although by the same token, coming up with ideas in such a short time means going back to the same well each time.
RPS: Crime Zone seems like it was made under that environment. Where did the idea for that multi-threaded narrative come from?
Thecatamites: There’s this idea that’s vaguely caught between group theory in mathematics – which you could see as ‘gamey’ pieces of reality – and, in music, the twelve tone [technique]. The idea where you take this small group of ‘streams’ and the possible combinations can come together to produce this new thing. So the original prototype of that game... consists of different streams and you can meander between them and then from that you end up with this narrative experience that arose naturally from all the different combinations that you try out. In practice I kind of got bored with the sparseness of that very quickly and just ended up writing a story about cops pissing on things and going crazy and stuff. Yeah, but part of it was based on the idea that you can go through this narrative and it flows in different directions. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
RPS: And it was! Well: thanks for your time.
And that, as they say, is that. But here, we still don’t have a name for all this guff yet. I’m rather fond of cuchlann’s suggestion of ‘bitpunk’ myself. And if nobody can come up with better than that before next week’s column, then I guess that’s just what we’ll have to call it for now. Anyway, you shouldn’t be worrying about any of that. You’ve got homework to do.