Games

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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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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