Squirrels and Their Awful Lives

I was reminiscing the other day about my intense love for Conker’s Bad Fur Day when a peculiar thought struck me: namely, that when you get down to it the end of the game is a real bummer. Sure, Conker saves the day, discovers a glitch in the game, and gets the programmers to solve his problems, rewriting the world in which he lives, but he completely forgets to bring back his girlfriend while he’s at it. So despite the best efforts of the player, the main goal of the game (win back Conker’s girlfriend) goes unfulfilled. Conker fails and sinks back into a deep depression. The game ends as it began, a drunken squirrel stumbling off into the night. No happy ending, just a failed attempt to get back home.

Watching the end of the game, I remember being surprised at its downright depressing conclusion–a group of my friends and I were playing at the time, and none of us realized what a vicious kick in the pants the ending of the game had in store for us. We sat through the credits in shock, quietly hoping that there would be something afterwards, such as a last sting where the game told us ‘just kidding, she’s actually okay, he’s actually okay, happy endings all around,’ but it never came. Conker had gotten distracted from his main quest (get home to Berri) and when the game had given him the chance to make everything right he’d forgotten to actually fix anything beyond the immediate problem of the xenomorph in front of him. It was one of those moments where a game actually felt mature, and not just because the characters swore and there were a bunch of jokes about tits (the measure of what was ‘mature’ and not to a teenager). Hiding behind the singing pile of feces was a black comedic sensibility, and while we all were more concerned with the tit jokes as kids, a second look at the game reveals a far more sophisticated plot than we’d given it credit for having.

The actual events of the game are bizarre, but they all have a sense to them–the developers even made the absolutely brilliant decision to go out of its way to explain both why Conker cannot die as well as why there are floating bits of chocolate appearing everywhere. It lays out the rules of the world in a way that allows the player to be cheerfully sucked into the world of the game without any of the nagging narrative questions that would otherwise arise for common game mechanics. Not only that, but as bizarre as the locations are, there is always a solid reason for Conker to be pulled into the proceedings beyond his mere desire to get the hell home. There’s sympathy there for Conker, as he tends to be drafted into assisting the denizens of the land while he’s really only concerned with either getting his hands on more cash or, when he remembers what he’s doing, getting home to his girlfriend.

Oh, and did we mention that the game’s main villain wants to make our fuzzy hero into a replacement table leg–itself a sort of commentary on characterization in many video games? After all, most game protagonists have a weakness in the characterization department–they’re just there to fill that missing spot for the player in order to interact with the game world. To prop up the plot, like… a table leg on a table missing legs. A game doesn’t work without some kind of stock protagonist, and the King’s table isn’t going to work without a squirrel for a leg. Conker is awfully annoyed about the fact that he’s stuck in a video game situation when he just wants to get home. Some problems are of his own making, while others are merely things that just happen to get in his way–getting drafted into the army, for one, is the game-world intruding on Conker’s trip home just so he can fight in a Saving Private Ryan-esque setting. Fortunately for the gamer, it’s a lot of fun. Unfortunately for Conker, it only further delays his getting home.

The zombie level has a similar event, though it is possibly a result of Gregg the Grim Reaper’s decision to allow Conker to keep coming back from the dead. There’s a lot more in these levels–people keep asking Conker for favors and then failing entirely to pay him back in any way. At the end of the game, Conker is just as alone as he was in the beginning, because the favors he did for these people don’t mean anything. They’re just there to give Conker an excuse to run through the game worlds. The only thing is that the game seems aware of this, which is why Conker is so sick of having to do favors by the end of the game. The only reason that he even agrees to the final bank heist is because he finally gets to be together with Berri (and the promise of money, of course). When the game crashes, Conker’s frustration at the ridiculousness of his situation–his anger at being stuck in a situation that nobody even bothered to beta test is both an almost prescient commentary on the bug-riddled releases which we seem to see these days as well as an honest expression of annoyance at having been forced to go through all of this crap only to have it break down before he even could finish.

In the end, Conker’s Bad Fur Day winds up being far more sophisticated than it has any right to be. It’s hilarious, sure, but the finale to the game makes it clear that more than anything else, Conker’s Bad Fur Day is a tragedy. Conker loses everything he actually cares about and even realizes it, lamenting that the grass is always greener and you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. What I’m saying should not be news to anyone–the game is fantastic, and currently stands alone as a cartoonish 3D platformer with a sophisticated story that manages to have a singing pile of shit as well as one of the best sucker-punch endings any game has ever had. All the death and struggle of the game loops back around and all that’s left for Conker is the bottom of the bottle. Brutal. If this were a review, I’d give it ten out of ten–because while it has its flaws, there has yet to be a game to follow in its footsteps and manage to pull off the same balancing act between horrific, tragic violence and balls-out (sometimes literally) comedy.