More than fine

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.

Psychotic dentists, mutated lungfish and a turtle named Mr. Pokeylope

You may already have gathered this, but in case you haven’t I have a confession to make. It’s one of my dirty little secrets.

I re-read books. And not only that: I also re-watch films. And, horror of horrors, I re-play games. Old games that have fewer pixels than Dick Cheney has had ethical thoughts. Games that require an hour or two of fiddling with Windows, downloading fan patches and editing game code in order to work on a 21st century operating system.

Of course I don’t replay any and every game I’ve ever played. Your run-of-the-mill first-person shooter is unlikely to get much of a repeat performance with me, unless it’s got that certain je ne sais quoi and is called Half-Life 2, I guess. (Or No One Lives Forever, or Call of Duty 2. For some reason, though, I didn’t even properly finish Doom 3 once.) Just like the films and books I enjoy more than once, some games are so good at telling a story and pulling you into their world, whether this is because of the gameplay or the writing, that I can’t resist revisiting them.

Psychonauts is definitely one of those games. It’s one of the most inventive, best written video games I know, and funny to boot. It’s also one of those rare cases where the gameplay itself is fun but not all that special – but once you combine it with everything else, the game becomes that oldest of chestnuts: more than the sum of its parts.

It’s the sheer exuberant imagination of the minds the game visualises: the paranoid delusions of the Milkman Conspiracy (and its wonderfully off-the-wall G-Men), the monster-movie inspired Lungfishopolis, the many other minds that form the basis for the game’s level. And the often inspired voice work is still among the most perfect in the videogame industry.

Differently from many of the other classic games I replay (or hope to, if I ever find the time), Psychonauts is still available (there’s no need to get it for lots of dough on eBay), namely on Steam. I don’t often do such blatant plugs on my blog, but this game is worth it.