Gingiva — Beware The Sphincter Lamas
Gingiva is a difficult game to review, since I'm so inclined to grade it based on what it portends, rather than what it is.
Gingiva is the latest interactive offering from John Clowder, an artist whose work tends toward baroque anatomical surrealism, incorporating elements of collage and textbook biological illustrations to create images that are at once beautiful, disturbing, and oddly clinical. Clowder and the gaming world last intersected about a year ago when he gifted the world with Middens, a free game that he created with RPG Maker. Middens stood out from the usual gaggle of indie fare by virtue of the unique art style Clowder brought to enemies and environments, the industrial/ambient/electronic mix of his musical score, and the nonlinear, absurd nature of the game's story, that of a speechless, faceless protagonist wielding a self-aware firearm amid the shattered ruins of several colliding planes of reality. Middens' profoundly creative elements managed to transcend gameplay that amounted to little more than wandering around and getting into dull, turn-based battles, and the game was something of an underground hit. Clowder Kickstarted his next game, which is not Gingiva but another project called Moments of Silence that's still in production as of this sentence. Gingiva appears to inhabit a strange creative twilight zone between Middens and the upcoming Moments of Silence. Is it composed of leftovers from Middens? Was it to be a small part of Moments of Silence, but grew too large and was allotted its own game? I'm speculating wildly because I'm loath to regard Gingiva as an independent piece. It's brief, topping out at about four hours. It has a better story than Middens, one that even succeeds in generating real emotional tension, but the combat is bland, and there's so much of it that it quickly turns into a chore. I'd much rather think of Gingiva as one point mapping John Clowder's trajectory as a game designer than a complete game since, if he intends to make good games instead of good interactive pieces of digital art, the gameplay in his work is going to have to improve, and Gingiva shows little sign of that happening.
The word “gingiva” refers to gums, the mucosal tissue that teeth (ideally) reside in. In the game of the same name "gingiva" functions as the name of our eponymous heroine, who ironically lacks teeth as well as a proper head. Gingiva's character design, like much of Clowder's artwork, is the product of taking things apart and stitching them back together in new ways, a process that can be creative and rewarding or, as is more often the case, destructive and disturbing. Gingiva has a doll's body, but instead of a head she has a wind up key. Such abominations are usually the products of cruel brothers who have gained access to their sisters' toys, and Gingiva's anatomical predicament is the product of a similar breed of animal malice on a much grander scale.
When the story begins fair Gingiva is toiling on an assembly line, making conspicuously useless crap for a purely hypothetical consumer. An alarm sounds, and she's ordered to report to Mother Most High, an enormous, perpetually lachrymose face that lectures Gingiva on the virtue of labor, chastises her for failing to make goods fast enough, and sentences her to a period of solitary confinement, to be followed by whipping. Our heroine is imprisoned in a dark cell haunted by the ghosts of long-departed Snakecats where she broods upon her accursed condition until a hole appears in the wall burrowed by a friendly pair of chattering red teeth. After a brief altercation with Mother Most High, Gingiva and her mouthy savior make their exit, beginning a quest to both escape the vengeful forces of Mother Most High and to retrieve Gingiva's lost head—you know, all the classic Joseph Campbell Hero's Journey stuff, boilerplate, really.
The environments Ginvaga & Teeth traverse will be familiarly alien to everyone who played Middens. I can't call them “more of the same”, since Clowder's designs are reliably anything but. They are a kaleidoscope of geometrically tortured candy nightmares strained through a gauntlet of subconscious anxieties, they're beautiful and bizarre and occasionally unsettling, but aside from looking at them and walking around there's little to do besides fight monsters, and that's easily the worst part of the game. The battles are turn-based affairs starring Ginvaga's companion teeth, who is eventually joined by Himmler, a television; and Kharms, a sculpture. Besides attacking and blocking all three fighters get special abilities called Savvy. Savvys can deal damage, bestow status effects, or heal allies, but usually only one Savvy is effective against an enemy, and encounters quickly devolve into hurling random attacks against foes and, more often than not, settling on simply piling on a bunch of regular strikes and absorbing damage until the enemies die, with no need for strategy whatsoever. There are lots of interesting and weird attacks like Sad Clown and French Taunting, but in the end all they do is inflict damage. As you keep playing and get forced into fight after fight it becomes increasingly apparent that Gingiva suffers from a profound unbalance between its level of ascetic design, which approaches genius, and its level of gameplay mechanic design, which is just plain boring. The combat in Middens wasn't very good either, but there was less of it, and you often had the option of avoiding it entirely, depending on whether you chose to use your gun to initiate combat or not. Ginvaga is stuffed to the gills with enemy encounters, and this time the fights aren't a matter of choice, in fact the enemies often run right at you the moment you're spotted. This constant interference is rendered even more maddening by the fact that it interrupts the story, which, unlike Middens, Ginvaga has.
John Clowder is not just a talented artist, he's a world builder. It's easy to miss since he's so fond of taking several worlds, breaking them down, and stitching their incongruous elements back together, but they do unite into a kind of patchwork gestalt. The philosophic-spiritual quips Clowder puts in the mouths of his NPCs (or whatever orifice he designs them with) are occasionally funny and always interesting. He games are suffused with big ideas, yet none of them are lingered on, and the closer you seem to get to them the less substantial they appear, like existential heat shimmers. The dark, avant-garde surrealism of Gingiva's story is a perfect fit for the world he created, and I dearly wish there were more of it. I don't remember any of Gingiva's battles, but I remember encountering monster after monster that demanded I marry them, and the domestic slavery that ensued when when I accepted. I remember encountering a squalid bum who turned out to be a Buddha, the city of teeth hidden in the walls, the dissertation on what mating squids look like, the magistrate's rambling monologues, the tragic soul extracting ray, the cameos from characters in Middens, and the sad state of Gingiva & Co.'s decaying world that so eerily resembled our own. I just wish the combat that took up so much of the play time had been more interesting.
Clowder has said that he isn't using RPG Maker for Moments of Silence. I hope he keeps making strange, beautiful worlds, and either reinvents his battle system or does away with it entirely. In the meantime we still have Gingiva, and a flawed John Clowder game is still far, far better than no John Clowder game at all.