Like a lot of teenagers, I developed an interest in paganism as a girl. I believed that by burning incense and wearing special braided bracelets I could tap into the wisdom of the cosmos. Eventually I discovered I was about as psychic as a rock and, well, there went that business.
Esoterica America is very much the spitting image of those adolescent dabblings in the occult; it’s a laughable mish-mash of hokey pseudo-science, New Age spiritualism, and self-help book platitudes. I daresay there is no better word for it in the world than “juvenile.”
The premise of the game, roughly speaking, is of following 21-year-old Sam Collins’s road trip around mystical Washington D.C., enlightening the leaders of various secret societies and lodges with his prodigal gifts. In the course of this trek, he meditates, fights off distractions by making chanting sounds, and solves a few easy puzzles, curing people of their stutters and homophobia.
Such a game could easily be tons of fun and campy as all get-out, but more than anything else, Esoterica America feels like it’s trying too hard and attempting to be minimalist at the same time—not a particularly good combination. Were the game simply not tasteful, that would be one thing. This, however, is amateurish drudgery combined with the worst sort of childish entitlement seen spouted from positions of ignorance. And, yes, by that I do indeed mean the in-game encyclopedia entry on how mystics need to “take back” the swastika and the pointed white hood for the good of all mankind. This was about when I was sorely tempted to just shut the game off. But by that point, I’d already given the developers my 240 Microsoft points and, gratefully short as it is, I decided I may as well muster through to the end.
Thankfully, while I still don’t believe the game was worth the time spent playing it, it did indeed turn into a vaguely interesting thing to see through. Maybe it’s the black and white ink portraits (easily my favorite part of the art design—very “student film”), maybe it’s the excruciatingly bad voice acting, maybe it’s the idea of representing meditation as a shoot-em-up without the projectiles, but Esoterica America devolves from simply awful into delicious Ed Wood territory in fairly short order. This is the sort of Adult Swim trashiness of Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show Great Job, played too straight to be clever satire but played far too loose to get up in arms about. For all the grievances I might hold for its pseudo-science, its bastardization of Carl Sagan quotes to suit some bricolage spiritualist tripe, or its corny misappropriation of Hubble telescope images, the game still remains too aware of its own absurdity to hate it. There’s even a little Rastafarian redneck version of Duck Hunt hidden in one of the first rooms.
Granted there are other dreadful things about Esoterica America, namely that it’s poorly animated, buggy, uneven, short, pointless, lazy and horrifically unfunny. A proper takedown of Illuminati, Freemasons, and New Age spiritualism I could stand to see in a game—heck, can you imagine a game mocking Scientology? I’d pay to see that—but this remains simply cartoonish. Were this the work of an early teenager, I might find it endearing. Unfortunately, Esoterica America suffers from the same afflictions of creator vanity as Sequence, and I’m forced to confront the reality that this game was produced, designed and sold by men over the age of 18, against all odds and decency.
It’s as if I need to compile a guide on what not to do as an indie game developer. It isn’t that independent games cannot be personal (Jason Rohrer’s Passage is more than testament to this), but there is an absurd level of prattishness that comes with this degree of narcissism. Oh, and the pretentiousness. When you choose to namedrop Baudrillard, dear designers, and then proceed to feature an Xbox 360 in your character’s house and have him pick up a book which shares the title of your game, it isn’t actually that clever.
Throw in a little more scatological humor and meandering tangents and I might be tempted to call Esoterica America Episode I a neat little sophomoric comedy for the college crowd. Unfortunately, I seriously doubt a game like this will be winning anyone’s affection—even of the ironic Plan 9 from Outer Space type—any time soon.