jack king-spooner

Beckett Review — New Look, Old Habits

by Jed Pressgrove

Few things have escaped the cynical crosshairs of the noir genre. So when you come across the line in the detective game Beckett that reads, “Beckett stopped believing in any notion of God the day his baby sister died,” the prose fits the noir profile, regardless of whether you have faith of any sort. Developer Simon Meek, like many crime fiction writers before him, always stays on script; his protagonist’s observations about life are dark and to the point. But Meek’s way of executing the formula — his unusual mixture of text, full-motion video, photographs, and strange audio within a point-and-click adventure format — makes it more difficult to reject Beckett as another case of fatalistic mimicry.

As the titular private investigator, you are trying to find Peregrine, the adult son of a woman named Daisy, who spends most of her time watching television. Peregrine is an awkward young man who can’t take female rejection and has essentially ran away from home. Beckett himself has his own psychological issues, which stem from his childhood, a general sort of world-weariness, and the loss of his wife.

This game constantly undercuts the predictable framework of the 2D point-and-click adventure as the story advances. You never know what kind of storytelling device or audiovisual cue will be triggered by your clicks. When you click a person, sometimes a text conversation starts immediately, but you won’t hear voice acting. Instead, every character has a repetitive sound associated with their dialogue. For Beckett, it’s coughing, most certainly a result of his smoking habit and age. For others, it might be the sound of lips aggressively eating and kissing (Daisy), the din of a typewriter (a receptionist), or a jackhammer (a construction worker).

Other times the game will perform visual gymnastics when you click something. After you initiate contact with a city representative, the camera zooms in on the character’s avatars, and the background becomes blurry and starts to rotate, eventually resembling a spinning vinyl record. During another pivotal conversation, the typical text-based exchanges evaporate as you begin to hear one of the character’s voices, and humongous words start to fill up the screen. From there, the game shifts to a display of prose with full-motion-video worms writhing in the background. Meek’s off-the-wall style, somewhat reminiscent of Jack King-Spooner’s use of kaleidoscopic audiovisual elements in RPGs, is always intriguing and defies the tried-and-true structure we’ve come to expect from adventure games.

The game’s script, while concise and engaging, isn’t as exceptional as its balls-out presentation. The resigned atheism of the protagonist makes sense initially, as you gather that Beckett’s mother had faith and probably pressured her son to follow in her footsteps. You also learn that religion-inspired guilt plagues the investigator: “Beckett seeks forgiveness. From whom he doesn’t know.” The storytelling falls apart, though, when Beckett sees a crying baby in the alley and muses, “Leave it be.” Why would a guilt-stricken man, whose baby sister died, be this apathetic about a helpless child? Meek never provides an answer. It’s as if the player is supposed to assume the worst just because the game is within the noir genre.

The protagonist’s puzzling lack of compassion is perhaps explained by one interpretation of the story’s ending. There is reason to believe after the conclusion that Beckett is not a real person but rather a projection of an aspect of another character’s psychology. While this reading can leave room for weird inconsistencies, it doesn’t help the game step out of the large shadow of numerous crime and psychological thriller stories that use a similar type of plot twist.

One of the game’s most memorable final lines is “There is no meaning to this world beyond which we give it.” At best, the absurdist philosophy of this quote doesn’t ring true in the context of the story’s relentless negativity. At worst, the thought registers as an excuse for Meek’s game-ending obfuscation. Beckett is compelling for how it says what it says through provocative images and sounds, but its overall message is confined by the typical nihilism of a genre that, for years, has had nothing new to point out.

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Games That Provoke — Will You Ever Return: In da Hood

by Jed Pressgrove

Our responses to video game content seem to be predestined. We can reasonably predict how we will feel about a game’s violence, a game’s lack of diversity, a game’s language, a game’s sex, a game’s political meaning. The unexpected boldness of Will You Ever Return: In da Hood could temporarily halt this pattern — if only it could get more attention.

Some would find it very easy to dismiss Will You Ever Return: In da Hood immediately. The game opens with Satan proclaiming “I like to fuck bunnies” and shooting his spermatozoa. Unlike with a Grand Theft Auto or South Park entry, you really don’t know what you’re getting with Will You Ever Return: In da Hood, even if you’ve played the first two Will You Ever Return games from developer Jack King-Spooner.

Uninterested in building a franchise, Will You Ever Return: In da Hood plays with our perceptions of reality. As Will Smith from his Fresh Prince days, you search a dreary part of Philadelphia and interact with pop culture icons, the majority of whom are rappers. Although you control a Will Smith made of pixels, many icons in the game resemble their real-life counterparts, like pictures cut out of magazines. This visual approach reveals a pretense in how big-budget graphics are often praised — video game “realism” is only polygon deep. (An acknowledgement of artificiality is also why the Scottish King-Spooner can have an American rapper say “mum.”)

The quests in Will You Ever Return: In da Hood also call attention to the commingling of reality and artifice and how we perceive both as an audience (as Tupac says, “Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.”). The first significant interaction is with Jennifer Lopez, who tells you she needs crack — a silly fabrication that nonetheless awakens the social judgment that tabloid journalism has taught us. You eventually get caught up in the “war” between Biggie and Tupac, which culminates in a joke straight out of Looney Tunes. Another scenario involves talking with the Wu-Tang Clan about rules of the street. Then there’s a staring contest against Hulk Hogan. This type of satire doesn’t debase pop mythology; it amplifies our understanding of it.

The ridiculous quests are juxtaposed against more pressing social problems. King-Spooner’s gun-control agenda lacks insight, but the game’s attention to poverty and street violence creates a need for catharsis (i.e., the need for Big Willie Style). The historical racial divide highlighted in NPC dialogue (“Emmitt Till to Trayvon Martin.”) goes beyond the debates in the video game community. One can learn more about race from the references in Will You Ever Return: In da Hood than from the self-important public relations about diversity and social injustice at the Game Developers Conference.

Perhaps it’s not ironic that King-Spooner uses Will Smith to reconcile reality and artifice. The developer’s critique of Lil Wayne might seem mean-spirited, but there’s a lot of truth to the resolution: “Will [Smith] raps and the world becomes a better place. Children stop to listen and flowers bloom.” It certainly sounds more credible than the Independent Games Festival telling us that the miserable Papers, Please was the greatest thing of 2013.