nihilism

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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Critical Riffs: Fez, Snot City, Glitchhikers, Love Worker

by Jed Pressgrove

Fez

This ballyhooed platformer combines Nintendo nostalgia and esoterica to make us go “Wow.” We’re supposed to do the talking because Phil Fish’s pixel art has next to nothing to say. The game has cute dialogue and plenty of places to see, but the perspective changing and puzzles make for rigid and tedious exercises, as opposed to the revelations uncovered with practice and experimentation in the cryptic masterpiece Solomon’s Key. Don’t buy into the bullshit about Fez’s ode to relaxation. Fish called his work “a ‘stop and smell the flowers’ kind of game.” No, that was 2009’s vastly superior Flower.

Snot City

James Earl Cox III is a more accomplished artist than Phil Fish. Snot City won’t win any awards for maturity or sensitivity, but the game’s subversion of clean-cut problem solving in games is unpretentious and original. Snot City establishes itself as a race against time in which you have to find new abilities to unlock paths and save the day. Although it’s tempting to stand still and take in the unusual environment, message prompts and fidgety animation reinforce the urgency to move. One could criticize Snot City as an inside joke on game design, but Cox’s conclusion is an unforgettable sensation.

Glitchhikers

This game from Silverstring Media captures the suspense of normal human life through an appeal to the senses. Simulating a late-night drive on the highway, Glitchhikers awakens the universal fear of running off the road with every blink of an eye and every look out the side window. The game wrecks when it starts talking. Although sure to garner comparisons to filmmaker David Lynch, the heavy-handed dialogue between imaginary hitchhikers and the driver overlooks ordinary, relatable concerns (work, family, etc.) of people who drive tired at night. By primarily appealing to dark, surface-level philosophy, Glitchhikers proves that commoners don’t matter when you’re up your own ass.

Love Worker

Earlier this year, Vaida shared Talks with My Mom, a modest story that surpassed Gone Home’s nonsensical and irrelevant portrait of gay identity and family. Vaida’s Love Worker is more of a minor achievement yet registers as genuine escapism. You move left and right hurling bombs in the middle of an industrial area full of walking suits. Rather than kill, the bombs add color. Not as naive as it might seem, Love Worker refashions the robot, a symbol of compulsory work, into a songwriter: “As a machine/I can’t compete/With what humans do.” This combination of song and game isn’t new, but few independent shorts concentrate on joy like Love Worker.