Riffs

The Old Man Club Review — Literary Deceit

by Jed Pressgrove

Michael Kolotch’s The Old Man Club has been praised as a strange, smart adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. The graphics of The Old Man Club are undeniably provocative in how they lampoon Hemingway’s infamous manhood, but all this finger-pointing is a testament to contemporary snark and, eventually, unchecked homophobic and racist tendencies of “progressive” thought.

Essentially, The Old Man Club turns Hemingway’s novel of spiritual struggle into an ode to smart-assed secularism. Ignoring the humbleness and Christ parallel of protagonist Santiago, Kolotch settles for depicting the same joke multiple times: hairy, over-the-hill men fighting to prove they’re still alpha dogs via arm wrestling. With its absurd references to The Old Man and the Sea, The Old Man Club gives itself the illusion of relevance. If the game didn’t have Hemingway to lean on, it would be more easily dismissed as a monotonous, tone-deaf send-up of the “Test Your Might” segments in Mortal Kombat, as you’re expected to defeat your opponents by clicking the mouse as quickly as possible. Not even a fish head on a muscular man’s body is unheard of in video games — the avant garde shooter Shutshimi used this idea to great effect in 2014.

Kolotch’s emphasis on the bulging penis conveys that repressed gay identity might play a role in the pathetic spectacle of manliness. It’s an easy way to get laughs, as homosexuality has been a traditional, built-in target for people looking to affirm their supposed morally superior lifestyles. This cliche gets uglier toward the end of The Old Man Club when you have to arm-wrestle a shark from Hemingway’s book. As the big boss of the game, the shark is depicted as a black man and gets the most sexually suggestive lines (“I smell a fresh scent” and “You drive a good harpoon”) in addition to a sarcastic reference to providence (“God pities you”). Consider the irony of this hindsight and critique: condescending portrayals involving race and sexual orientation weren’t the focus in The Old Man and the Sea. You have to wonder whether some read the books they talk about.

Crime Is Sexy Review — Punching Up, Down, or Across

by Jed Pressgrove

There’s not a more vicious mockery of computer game politics than Crime Is Sexy. The sarcastic title has a double meaning, with the more obvious one being the jab at glorified crime series like Grand Theft Auto and Hotline Miami. Developer Jallooligans puts force into this punch by making the 1980s-inspired David Hasselhoff song “True Survivor” the score to its satire. In this context, Hasselhoff’s trivial 2015 Internet hit evokes the same type of retro sentimentality that game development churns out to make its celebrations of illegal activity seem like a part of every happy childhood. The self-aware yet unthinking heroism in “True Survivor” has a parallel in today’s smart-assed consumers who get hoodwinked by industry.

The second meaning of Crime Is Sexy plays off the contracts between players and “Overlords” like Steam, Electronic Arts (Jallooligans steals EA’s logo for an opening credit), and Ubisoft. Jallooligans depicts digital rights management as inherently absurd and, thus, criminal. Crime Is Sexy begins with you filling out credit/debit card information, reading a user agreement that outlines how the “Overlords” own everything related to the game (including you by extension of playing it), and giving away personal details. Hasselhoff’s line “Fighting for life, for good, for all that we believe in!” provides a biting contrast to the lack of action taken against what Jallooligans portrays as make-believe authority.

Crime Is Sexy then opens up as a collection of (supposedly) 1,000 unique games. As you scroll through and try titles such as Middle-Class Conflict Trainer, Bureaucratic Inferiority Non-Game, and Ethnic Downfall Statement (and numerous variations on these and other themes), you find every game is about failure as represented by a block that can’t quite jump to a higher platform. This repetitive send-up, along with an accompanying Kickstarter video pitch suggesting that popular social technology transforms game developers into beggars and swindlers, is mean-spirited but also true to Jallooligans’ class-driven implication that there should be more of a conscious fight from audiences and artists.

Grab Them By The Eyes Review — Cart Strife

by Jed Pressgrove

On the surface, Terry Cavanagh’s Grab Them By The Eyes is a privileged version of Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life, trading the latter’s working-class pathos for quick math-based fun. You play as an unassuming hamburger stand owner who finds a natural enemy in two hip-looking youngsters who set up their own hamburger stand right down the sidewalk. A war of words ensues as you and your opponents buy signs to attract more customers. Different messages and visual effects for your signs attract different amounts of customers, but you can’t spend more than your budget allows, and you must take turns with your enemies when purchasing signs. The advertising gets ugly when you have the opportunity to buy a sign that slams your rivals (you can write your own disparaging messages, though they won’t bring as many new customers). Morality didn’t matter while I played; I just wanted to beat the game at all costs. Interestingly, once you learn the game’s logic, you’ll have little trouble winning, and once you win, no new or bigger challenges remain. You’re left with Cavanagh’s ending where the person selling the signs runs you and those hipsters out of business. Grab Them By The Eyes is a minor morality tale, as Cavanagh’s doesn’t connect his ironic conclusion to anything specific, but the lack of extra content after an empty victory suggests conviction about the pratfall of vicious advertising.

Naut Review — A Mirage of Fun

by Jed Pressgrove

Developed by Lucie Viatgé, Tom Victor, and Titouan Millet, Naut seems bold. The soundtrack demands the most attention, evoking the hypnotic Phillip Glass and hinting at the transcendence of Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra” that fulfilled the vision of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The mixture of warm and cool colors complements this sense of mesmerization, as does the quick onset of ubiquitous lightning and night. This style fits Naut’s invitation to explore, and not just on foot — a car awaits next to the starting point. The automobile also signals the frustrating repetition of poor functionality. Steering the car is a nightmare. Ideally, this shouldn’t matter in the open setting of a Mars desert, but small rocks and other surprisingly sturdy obstacles cannot be seen until you get close to them. Naut attempts to sidestep this problem with whimsy. You can drive the car even when it’s upside down, or you can exit the vehicle to flip it over with the press of a button, which often makes the car perform high-flying stunts. These humorous concessions soon become a monotonous game activity. Running across the environment is more attractive than fumbling around in the vehicle, though the relative slowness of the former breeds impatience as the gradually appearing sights remind me of Jake Clover’s Tandoor, an unsubstantial game that was at least nonirritating with its fleeting appeal.

Dream.Sim Review — Colorful Nothing

by Jed Pressgrove

Some may put OXAM’s Dream.Sim under the same umbrella as Proteus because of its first-person wandering. The similarity ends there: Dream.Sim has a vague, nonspiritual vision. The best moment comes at the beginning when you jump off the balcony of an apartment, defying the laws of life and death to explore a neon city. Look around enough and you’ll find an allusion to nature in a mysterious inky space outside (or within) the metropolis, but the slower walking speed in this area gives one plenty of time to observe a lifelessness that is off-putting compared to Proteus’ active celebration of the natural world and its creation. The most interesting prospect in Dream.Sim is trying to jump onto higher buildings. Unfortunately, high jumps require running, and pressing the run button in the city turns exploration into an ultrasensitive mess of claustrophobic run-ins with black and empty walls. I can’t help but feel I’m staring at nothing despite Dream.Sim’s bright colors and elaborate environment.