In the Grip of the Paternal: Thomas Brush’s 'Skinny'

Skinny may be the follow up to Brush’s previous flash game, Coma. One way or the other, his concerns with paternalism and authority remain.

Skinny may be a direct follow up to Thomas Brush’s haunting little flash game, Coma. At least, the game is sprinkled with some secret items that allude to the previous title in the form of an empty bird cage, a fishing hook, and a gravestone.

A direct relationship between the odd adventure of a seemingly comatose boy named Pete whose effort to free his sister from the basement (which comprises the majority of the plot of Coma) and the adventure of a skinny robot tasked with retrieving batteries to sustain human beings that have been jacked into some sort of hallucinatory subsystem by an AI called “Mama” is never made exactly clear in the new game.

And despite the probable near incoherence of the previous summary of the premise of the two games, nevertheless, there are some rather clear thematic parallels between both games, as well as a clear consistency in Brush’s aesthetic more generally.

Both games feature moody music, at once both soothing and haunting, as well as visually rich dreamscapes that the player occupies in the guise of two rather strange and alien characters. Pete is an oddly bean-shaped and rather smallish (given the size of the rest of his world) boy-creature. The protagonist of Skinny, the robot of the same name, is a gangly, almost spider-like robot.

Both characters find themselves at the beginning of their respective games caught in the throes of sleep. For Pete, sleep defines his entire world, as Coma’s conclusion becomes a transition from the dreamscape/gameworld into wakefulness. As I have commented before when discussing his previous game, Brush rather effectively mimics the twisted logic of partial wakefulness in Coma and completing the game and “escaping” his world is a bit like waking from a state of drowsy dozing. Skinny, likewise, begins his adventure in a dreamscape, hooked to a subsystem that gives the illusion of his life as a husband and human in an idyllic, safe, and comforting world. “Wakefulness” occurs almost immediately, though, in the new game as the robot’s “slumber” is interrupted by another seemingly cybernetic creature, Mama, who needs Skinny to replace batteries for other slumberers (seemingly humans transitioning into robotic form by Mama’s system) that are on the verge of waking. These batteries have been stolen by a human boy named Felix.

Skinny then is tasked with maintaining unconsciousness, whereas Pete’s efforts culminate in escape from unconsciousness. Interestingly, in Coma, a creature also called “Mama” (more specifically in Coma, Mama Gomgossa) attempts to dissuade Pete from the task that will result in his waking.

In other words, mother creatures serve as antagonists as well as guides and manipulators in both games. For that matter, “Dad” is set up as the initial villain of Coma, as the bird that accompanies Pete on his adventure and who offers him advice and insight on the people and obstacles that he encounters tells Pete that “Dad locked me in the cage so I wouldn’t tell.” What bird has to tell is that Pete’s sister is a prisoner in the basement and that Pete can free her by ringing the “dore bell.”

That the bird, Dad, and Mama Gomgossa all serve to guide and direct Pete’s (and the player’s, for that matter) quest and that they all turn out to be liars, all lead to a rather unsettling feeling that voices of authority are less than trustworthy. Skinny extends this concern with paternalistic authority as Mama’s similarly misleading guidance of Skinny is justified by Mama’s insistence that her system and the authority that it represents exists for her “little ones” own good. She alludes to threats of pollutants, radioactivity, and war, all of which, she claims, would threaten the existence of the humans that she maintains the system for because “without the system I have put in place, they would be helpless.”

Like most romantic heroes, both Pete and Skinny, ultimately “succeed” by doing what they are not supposed to do, leading Pete to wakefulness and Skinny to enter a new game called “killing the mama,” encouraged by another rebel, the boy Felix. What is especially unsettling about the manner in which Brush chooses to end these tales is their ambiguity, though. Each game ends with the climax, ringing the dore bell, transitioning to a new game, but the outcome of each transition is not made clear, since the credits always roll just as that moment of “success” is achieved, as if the outcome of rebellion, of violating the rules is ever in question, ever uncertain, ever an unknown factor. In a culture of helicopter parents and ever present threats that make following the rules and doing the right thing necessary, it doesn’t surprise me that a twenty-something like Brush leaves the idea of open rebellion against system and authority a hazy one. After all, who does know what happens after you wake up or if you try to play your own game if you have always been encouraged by authority, parents, and the system to simply sleep?


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