grand titons

Mainichi: An Unsentimental RPG

by Jed Pressgrove

The title screen of Mainichi recalls the history of Japanese RPGs. Instantly sentimental music is a trick that almost every JRPG plays (even moodier ones like Chrono Cross). Once you move past Mainichi’s title screen, that decades-long thread is lost. Enter a world where JRPG music doesn’t exist.

Mainichi’s rejection of sentimental music is partly why Craig Stern wrote “Mainichi is not an RPG,” a statement that spends too much thought on what RPGs have been rather than on what they can be. Mainichi is a minimalist RPG and demonstrates how one can “role-play” outside of the sentimental model. The game’s sociological approach also contrasts with the sentimentality of many western RPGs — the promise of character creation mostly reflects a colorblind and genderless fantasy.

Developer Mattie Brice uses a Groundhog Day narrative structure to share her emotional struggle as a trans woman. The game’s purpose is no secret, but it does present a more passive attitude than either Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia or Devi Ever’s Grand Titons.  The hurtful messages you receive in Mainichi are influenced by that RPG standby: equipment. The importance of appearance in Mainichi makes even the faction politics of Fallout: New Vegas seem limited.

The player’s mission in Mainichi might become finding the path of least heartache. Walking down a sidewalk, for example, is more than a mundane everyday occurrence. Whereas the sidewalks of Will You Ever Return: In da Hood showcase an intermingling of fantasy and reality, the sidewalks of Mainichi smack only of uncomfortable realities about prejudice and relief. Nonplayable characters prompt you, not the other way around.

The coffee shop sequence is the most provocative part of the game. If you play Mainichi in a certain way, you can avoid discomfort and discouragement until it comes from an unexpected source. This “ending” fulfills Brice’s intensely personal message, less of a damning critique than a difficult heart-to-heart.

Last year critic Sidney Fussell asked “Can videogames teach us about race?” Mainichi, though more about gender, answered that question the year before it was asked. Brice could have made a longer, less repetitive, and more hopeful game (for that, Grand Titons is a better artistic creation), but at the very least, Mainichi provides a window into the social potential of video games.

Rock Bottom Celebrates Life over Death

by Jed Pressgrove

It would be oversimplification to say Rock Bottom makes death in platforming less of a drag. The game does reject the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” cliche, but only to establish its initial platforming concept. To advance to the next level in Rock Bottom, you have to jump higher. To jump higher, you have to find ways to fall to your death. Missing the lowest piece of ground represents the new platforming failure. But unlike a lot of games, Rock Bottom is ultimately about something more profound than the dynamics of video game death.

Other games like Planescape: Torment and The Useful Dead have tried to make death a part of success, but Rock Bottom surpasses these efforts. It’s still generally preferable to avoid death in Planescape: Torment, and unlike The Useful Dead, Rock Bottom doesn’t feel like a gimmick or a proof of concept. The game also doesn’t present itself as a take on another puzzler or punisher. Rock Bottom aims to be a satisfying, unique experience.

Rock Bottom is clearly the work of a sophisticated artist, not a charlatan exploiting the cynical disposition of contemporary culture (see Ground Zeroes). So many gamers and critics think “subversive” design is enough to call something “genius” — that’s why Rockstar can keep insulting the United States and making fools of everyone with Grand Theft Auto, a series that challenges everything but its own flimsy concepts. Rock Bottom isn’t lazy like that; after establishing its atypical death mechanic, it subverts its own main idea. The game’s platforming reaches a new level of articulation: avoiding death to die at the right time. This is how cliches become poetic again.

Developer Patchwork Doll (led by Amy Dentata) has created a platforming masterpiece that some (perhaps even the developer) might not consider a full-fledged game yet. Although Rock Bottom could be expanded with more levels and another gameplay wrinkle, the current version is a rare triumph in gaming. The ending of Rock Bottom is just as satisfying as the journey, if not more so. Like the conclusion of Grand Titons and the entire Castles in the Sky, Rock Bottom emphasizes the freedom of jumping. It’s a simple but elegant reminder that life is meant to be enjoyed despite struggle.

Dominique Pamplemousse Throws a Pity Party

by Jed Pressgrove

Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings!” encourages political correctness from those in the know, not empathy and understanding. As the Independent Games Festival awards get closer, game critics make sure that nominees like Dominique Pamplemousse receive enough hype not only to legitimize the IGF competition but also to trumpet their sensitivity to genderqueer folk. Meanwhile, the ignorant remain ignorant and perhaps even indignant.

Developer Deidra Kiai should be commended for the work and risks involved in the creation of a point-and-click musical. Almost everything, including the claymation and singing, was done by Kiai, though the game’s presentation sometimes suffers from a lack of comedic timing. Dominique Pamplemousse also admirably forgoes the process featured in adventures like The Shivah. For example, you instantly move from location to location, so there’s no silly map to speak of.

The game’s cynicism, however, nearly eliminates its technical and creative charm. The pretense of being “about gender and the economy” is suited for headlines rather than gamer consensus. The first mistake is making genderqueerness a bad punchline. As a protagonist, Dominique Pamplemousse doesn’t reveal anything insightful about gender; the character is merely an annoyed victim whose complaints fail to articulate what the choir (self-congratulatory critics) already knows. To some people who don’t mind the choice of a men’s or women’s restroom, Dominique might come across as a weird joke. One could attack people for this perspective, but the game fulfills dismissive attitudes on both sides as opposed to shedding light on the limitations of binary thinking about gender.

Domininque Pamplemousse also wants pity for the struggling working class, but its cynical approach lacks perspective. Economic deprivation is portrayed as a given, not a result of complex environmental and social factors. The story implies that the protagonist could have been economically secure if a college idea hadn’t been stolen, but the game’s usage of Auto-Tune singing is depressingly pathetic, whether as a joke, plot device, or commentary on identity. The game’s two endings deliver the ultimate bleak message that morality and happiness are impossible to maintain in tough times — just more sentimentality for a spoiled American society that confuses the Great Recession with the Great Depression.

While Dominique Pamplemousse has its endearing moments (such as the bagpipes joke and the ending credits sequence), all of its cynicism adds up to a plea for pity, a surefire way to kill laughter and prevent catharsis. The game lacks the hope and dreams of Grand Titons and keeps many in the dark about social realities that aren’t going to be obvious to everyone.