Middens - Keep Dreaming Those Cowboy Dreams
I played the guitar and it started to snow. I had to tell my gun I did not love it. There was a place where everyone was a version of me. Things made a sad, forlorn meow sound when they died. People talked about their dreams and then asked for random objects. There were faces and hands in the darkness. The music was a boiling cauldron of of oedipal anxiety, shades of the most ethereal Vangelis and darkest Nine Inch Nails. When I tried to get on the bus it turned into a hand with a mouth. I killed a slice of cheese with a mustache. It asked me if I knew what irony was.
If there's a target market for the surrealist indie game Middens by artist John Clowder, I'm in it. I like (some) art, I like surrealism, I like absurdism, I like weird stuff, I like unconventional narratives, I like Grant Morrison, I like Steve Aylett, I like Alan Moore(or at least I used to), I like Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco and Edward Albee and Sam Shepard and Kurt Vonnegut and Wonder Showzen and Xavier: Renegade Angel and all that nonsense. I also like video games, but since I'm such a snob I'm constantly complaining that they're not innovate enough, not clever enough, or don't take enough risks. When I found out about Middens it seemed deliberately formulated as an answer to my esoteric prayers: a fusion of abstract art and electronic entertainment, a psychedelic mindfrag to confound the senses and bestir the soul.
Middens is frightening and funny and surreal and absurd, but more than anything else it is a sad game—not sad as in pathetic, but sad as in melancholy; pathetic in the sense that it bears pathos. Broadly, the word “midden” refers to any sufficiently old repository of human waste, but as it's usually applied, midden means a site of preserved refuse from an ancient civilization, one that archaeologists sift through to gather data. A midden constitutes the remains of activity, it's what is left after a civilization has ceased to be: a motley heap of refuse unceremoniously piled together and forgotten. It's something hidden, yet for those inclined to investigate, it has secrets to yield. Middens takes this concept and runs with it, then tears it apart, then stitches it back together in a sick mosaic of rainbow nightmares. It's no coincidence that John Clowder (internet name RevolverWinds) is a collage artist.
The world of Middens isn't a world. It's more like the shattered remnants of a thousand worlds swept together into the same dustpan and unceremoniously dumped into your brain, an exquisite corpse reanimated by a mix of electricity and existential anxiety. There are some things that look like landscapes and buildings in Middens, but if you're waiting for the world to resolve into something coherent you're wasting your time. Clowder used RPG Maker to create Middens and it employs a top-down view like the original Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy, but his design eschews the notion of a single coherent world, allowing reality to morph into something unrecognizable within the space of a single flip-screen transition. It's like wandering through the slide show of a uniquely vivid mescaline trip. (For our younger readers unfamiliar with the bygone phenomenon of slide shows, I'll let Jon Hamm & Matthew Weiner explain.) I don't want to oversell the Middens experience, but it's difficult not to. The diversity of Clowder's landscapes are astonishing. Some are relatively normal spaces rendered alien by slight tweaks: an otherwise normal desert dotted with lampposts, an otherwise normal room with seemingly random food items hanging from the ceiling. Other regions have no real-world analogue whatsoever and consist entirely of abstract shapes animated by an obscure, vaguely menacing geometry. None of this is to say Middens is a game of infinite variety. As my time in the game progressed and I wandered hither and yon, the locations and interconnections within the landscape gradually began to sink in, in spite of their lunatic architecture. Play long enough and you'll tire of even the most eerily bat$#!+ regions of the Middens multiverse, an effect compounded by the game's absence of any compelling narrative, though there is something that kind of resembles a story, if you squint.
When Middens starts you are greeted by a sentient revolver with a blue eye on its cylinder and a pair of supple, red, Rocky Horror Picture Show lips on its frame. In order for the game to begin, you have to agree to be joined with the gun. “I am your conscience, but also your Id.” It explains. Most fighting in the game occurs by choice. As you progress through the world the gun refers to as the Rift, you'll encounter many creatures, most of whom won't attack you. You can choose to engage them at any by time by shooting them, which will either kill them outright, or trigger a turn-based battle sequence in the mold of classic Final Fantasy. The creature designs as depicted on the world map are odd enough in themselves, but to see them in battle is to encounter a whole new dimension of baroque anatomical curiosities. In addition to the main character of Nomad, during battle you can summon three proxies named Yam, Om, and Lam, (their names refer to chakras as stated in the bija mantras) which will attack, heal, cast status effects, and offer enemies someone to hit besides you. They have to be re-summoned at the beginning of each battle, which is a pain. Despite the audacity of its design Middens can be stubbornly old school when it comes to the nuts and bolts of gaming, like how enemies have no health bars, so you're never sure how close you are to killing them. The game adheres to the traditional model of winning battles to accrue experience, which yields additional health and abilities. Though the combat never gets particularly deep, its level of difficulty is high enough that you can't sleepwalk through encounters, particularly when the creatures your unprovoked attacks are raining down upon plead for their lives. Pleading comes in several forms, such as
*the target creature wishes they'd attended church more often*
*the target creature regrets nothing*
“Please, I'll do anything to continue living.”
“But I want to live to see another day.”
*the target creature is attempting to dial the authorities*
and is often followed by a riposte from your gun, which encourages you to kill, kill, kill. The gun addresses you directly several times in the game, delivering rambling monologues about hypothetical scenarios or its own bleak existence. For a mass produced killing machine, the gun is extremely insecure and codependent, essentially blackmailing you into picking it up when Middens begins. It feeds on death and suffering but it needs someone to aim it and pull its trigger. The only way it can interact with anyone is by being manipulated by its host or voyeuristically taking in the demise of its victims. It makes for a distinctly twisted relationship, and it's possible to read in it John Clowder's critique of the violent mechanics most video games employ. Middens never forces you to shoot anybody, but it's the only way to interact with the characters in the game besides talking to them, which only yields a line or two. (Though they're usually pretty great.) In spite of Clowder's incredible designs I began to get tired of wandering around and arbitrarily initiating combat with random occupants of the Rift after about two hours, which was approximately when the gun piped up and told me I could use it to kill myself, were I so inclined.
Shooting yourself in Middens doesn't kill you--or does it? The ending is ambiguous, though it did leave me feeling more or less satisfied. Beyond the simple aesthetic experience--which is exceptional in itself--Middens is one of those games that could mean nothing or everything depending on how much y0u're inclined to read into it and think about it. Part of existing in a society with mass media is growing accustomed, or at least inured, to conspicuous displays of meaninglessness: the hollow exterior, the empty ritual, the worthless sound bite. Middens is both light with conspicuous absurdity and heavy with implicit meaning. In that respect it's much more realistic--a far more honest depiction of the human psyche--than any big, ostensibly realistic, movie-aping triple-A title that's on the video game market today. It runs contrary to our programming. Perhaps that's why sifting through the ruins of Middens unnerves us so.