Thursday, 4 October 2007

Case Study: "Float over here so I can punch you"

Cower, bitch!If I were to do the fair thing and disregard the Super Mario franchise, my two fondest memories of playing video games as an adorable whippersnapper also happened to be, in their own way, two of my biggest creative and stylistic influences (in visual terms). This is no doubt because they themselves were inspired by the classic, manic era of animation that hit its stride in 40s and 50s. 'The Simpsons' had reminded the world that cartoons could be smart and dialogue-driven, 'Ren & Stimpy' had reminded the world that they could be insane and unrestrained. This renewed interest in animation during the early 90s bled into some video games which had, by good fortune, just about reached a level of technological sophistication that accommodated it. One such game was 'Earthworm Jim', which at some point I'd like to devote a separate entry to. The game that ever-so-slightly trumps it was a revelation to a lot of console-oriented videogamers like myself at the time.
Back in my day, video games came in needlessly huge cardboard boxes. None of that 'convenient' snap-case BS for us!'Day Of The Tentacle' (a 1993 sequel to the 1987 game 'Maniac Mansion' which had already become an old chestnut) was one of the earliest examples of a point-and-click adventure that was, essentially, an interactive cartoon. To a nine-year-old this was a truly wondrous concept, and in my not-quite-adulthood it has dated surprisingly well, for a number of reasons:
  • It isn't easy, but that being said I have the entire walkthrough eerily memorised to this day. I say 'eerily' because I can't even remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday.

  • It's still pretty funny, for not necessarily the same reasons, but lines like 'Ted is red, see red Ted' still keep me a-chucklin' like the silly bitch I am. At the time to just have the characters speak at all was brilliant enough.

  • The excellent sprite animation, obviously the more pertinent aspect in the context of this journal. Clearly a love letter to Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and that whole rat pack, it featured superb character acting, fluid motion and some nice dashes of craziness. The background paintings were especially gorgeous to look at in all their pixellated glory.
The game had some seriously nice backgrounds to stare at while you worked out what the hell you were supposed to do nextThe premise was fittingly nonsensical, referring to exposition set up in 'Maniac Mansion' (which I never got through) the player switches between three college students who explore the same building in the past, present and future respectively. The gameplay involves using one, two or all three characters to solve a series of bizarre puzzles - an example of the abstract thinking required being: the guy in the past needs vinegar to help power a battery, so he has wine transported from the present which he then seals in a time capsule. The girl in the future then has to locate the capsule, open it and send the bottle of what-has-now-become vinegar back to the past. Seriously, you needed that walkthrough...Chron-o-Johns!As with any successful cartoon, the characters were endearing and nicely developed - Bernard, a booksmart sort-of-leader; Hoagie, an overweight, hairy music enthusiast who I seem to have alarmingly morphed into; and Laverne, who is either baked or semi-retarded - either way every girl I wound up dating has reminded me a little of her. I guess this game seeped into my life in many ways. Bernard, Laverne and the strangely familiar Hoagie...The supporting characters were also well-conceived. The family of villains from the previous game are now semi-allies, although in 'Tentacle' you cannot die, so pretty much all the characters have some function or other that you need to harness to move the story along. They are essentially props with well-written dialogue.
Another crucial contributor to the game's overall environment - as, again, with any decent cartoon - was the music, which was expertly orchestrated and timed, and yet the factor that dates the game the most (it is a feast for the ears if you can get passed it being General MIDI).
It's tempting to simply list all the quotable dialogue, ingeniously-crafted puzzles and twists that made the game such a work of art, but neither you nor I have that kind of time. Well, okay, you probably don't. However, thanks to that ever-resourceful archive of pop-culture that is YouTube, here are some clips I found:

As a sidenote, I'm glad that these are mostly clips from playing as Laverne as she was my favourite. I'm not sure whether the voice actress's monotone reading of her dialogue was deliberate or because she was just awful. Either way, it's brilliant. The (sadly absent in these clips) highlights of her performance would be the occasional manic giggling she'd launch into apropos of absolutely nothing. But I digress...
Laverne: Creepy yet strangely hotThis game was a huge influence on 'Mitchells In England', if for no other reason than it sparked a desire to create my own cartoon universe with my own characters. Eventually when I got my sea-legs, drawing-wise, a lot of visual derivations started to appear. This has also been the case with 'House Guest', and as I get more comfortable with the animation process and the urge to get a little ambitious with it, I find myself reminded more and more of 'Tentacle'. It has me wondering whether my generation would be the first to actually count video games as a legitimate creative influence. It also makes me a little sad that polygonal, 3D gaming took over so shortly afterward and the marriage of traditional 2D animation and the gaming world never really developed far beyond the 16-bit era. Frankly it's a little jarring that things I hold dear to my heart from my childhood are already being dismissed as passé - shit, I didn't think it'd happen so soon...
Thanks then to the basement geeks who developed console emulators and ScummVM. I can stay mired in the past indefinitely! If the game can be located, I'd urge anyone with an interest in animation history to give it a whirl. I honestly consider it to be a frequently-overlooked milestone.
If you didn't find this bit funny you will miss out on everything worthwhile in life and die angryAnd 'Sam & Max' wasn't too shabby either.

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