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I’m not a big fan of Heavy Metal. Perhaps it’s that I’ve never had the hair to go with headbanging. Perhaps it’s that I dislike the sexism that often seems to go with it. Perhaps it’s simply that I was raised on Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and that has influenced my entire musical development. I’ve always been more into borderline pretentious psychedelic prog rock, if anything, and then lots of indie singer/songwriter stuff than the leather-and-studs bridgade. I enjoyed This Is Spinal Tap, but half the jokes probably went straight over my head. Other than Ozzie, I’m not sure I could pick any of the greats of Metal out of a police line-up.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I started playing Tim Shafer’s Brütal Legend (savour that umlaut!) – and immediately fell in love with the world and atmosphere of the game.
Tim Shafer could be called the Tim Burton of the videogame world – if you disregard Burton’s creative stagnation, his repetitiveness and his increasingly mannered goth shtik. His games are strong on character, world building and storytelling, to the point where the gameplay becomes secondary. He’s the guy who spliced together Casablanca and the Mexican Day of the Dead and who created a summer camp for the psychic. And he’s the mastermind behind Brütal Legend, a game that takes as its inspiration Heavy Metal – not only the music, but the aesthetic, the ethos, the feel of it all (minus the “Smell the Glove” misogyny, mind you). Its world is designed to look like all the Metal album covers you can imagine, turned up to 11. It’s inhabited by laser-eyed black panthers and mastodons with gleaming metal tusks. It should be tacky – but instead it pulls off its loving hommage with style, with a little help from Jack Black. I mean, how can you not warm immediately to a game featuring lines such as these:
– Ever feel like you were born in the wrong time – like you should have been born earlier, when the music was… real?
– Like the seventies?
– No. Earlier… like the early seventies.
What is perhaps most amazing is that in a game featuring KISS-faced Amazons, phony big-haired rock stars (even the guys from Spinal Tap would find General Lionwhyte embarrassing – and yes, he’s one of the game’s villains) and a very familiar-looking Guardian of Metal, Shafer manages to pull off a story that takes turns being funny, thrilling and finally poignant. It’s difficult not to wipe away a manly Metal tear at the game’s ending. In a medium that’s full of teenage male wish fulfillment gone wrong (or just stale), that’s a rare gift.