Pulp novels and magazines are getting a second wind in the 21st century. The Argentinian-based LCB Game Studio, led by Nico Saraintaris and Fernando Martinez Ruppel, has created the Pixel Pulps series of visual novels. So far, three games have been released in the series: Mothmen 1966, Varney Lake, and the latest installment Bahnsen Knights.
There is an oversaturation of visual novels. They are a type of game that owes its popularity to accessibility and ease of production due to the proliferation of easy-to-use software tools like Godot and Twine. However, the idea of visual pulp novels, as undertaken by LCB Game Studio with the Pixel Pulps series, has more appeal than its contemporaries. Saraintaris and Martinez Ruppel are creating video games through a means of cultural production not dissimilar to how pulp magazines and book publishers made their products in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Bahnsen Knights distinguishes itself from its predecessors by being the most macabre. It’s a text-based fever dream. Described by the game’s publisher Chorus Worldwide as “an interactive pulp fiction set in a world of religious fanatics, f5 tornadoes and Ford Sierras”, my curiosity was piqued, but it carried an anxiety; religion puts me on edge; tornadoes, no thank you! And I detest driving. What better way to describe pulp for the 21st century?
In Bahnsen Knights, Boulder, the game’s protagonist, infiltrates a para-government organization, the Bahnsen Knights. Boulder must gather evidence to build a strong enough case to take down the Knights, who are amassing land and resources. They also murdered Boulder’s partner, Cupra. It’s a story of a religious fanatical cult whose members engage in heinous criminal activity and exorcize roads (yes, really). The Bahnsen Knights were founded by Toni, formerly a used car salesman – after two F5 tornadoes “nailed the heart of the country at the same time” – the tornadoes converged, one traveling from North to South and the other East to West “like a cross…”
Computer graphics games of the 1980s inspire Bahnsen Knights’ pixel graphics and visuals. It plays like those games as well. The music is menacing and mostly used as set dressing to heighten story moments. It’s an effective trick that draws attention to key narrative parts and crescendos during pivotal story scenes. I played the game on the Nintendo Switch.
The game measures the level of trust characters have towards Boulder via a visual bar that appears below their character portraits. Their trust can be manipulated by making certain decisions. For example, if you converse with a character in a specific way, they might grow fond of Boulder, or if they catch your avatar snooping in places you are not supposed to be, they might confront it or even “kill” it. The Bahnsen Knights are a violent gang, after all. On occasion, you play minigames ranging from darts to a cross-themed variant of Solitaire.
Bahnsen Knights’ gameplay is clunky, a problem it inherits from those ’80s text-based pixel adventure games. When tasked with making a decision as Boulder, you must navigate the text menu first to populate a highlighter and then to navigate and make your decision. This process is unintuitive and frustrating, specifically when tasked with making timed decisions. LCB Game Studio should automatically populate the highlighter on the screen for future installments of the Pixel Pulps series.
Bahnsen Knights’ story is an intersection between violent fanaticism and German expressionist philosophy. The clue is in the game’s title. Bahnsen was the last name of a late German philosopher, Julius Bahnsen, whose essay, “Theory of Tragedy” [Das Tragische als Weltgesetz (The Tragic as a World Law), 1877.], is based on how our world’s contradictions inevitably lead to tragedy. Bahnsen was a proto-Nietzsche of sorts. Bahnsen Knights shares an aesthetic of tragedy with Bahnsen, the philosopher. Both examine a perceived harsh and violent inevitability present in the human condition when the natural world crosses with the human world.
Bahnsen, the person, on the other hand, based his “Theory of Tragedy” on how pervasive this contradiction is in our world. This is on display in Bahnsen Knights as tornadoes lay waste to all without rhyme or reason. Toni and his religious zealots are inspired by nature’s power to destroy. They seek vindication in this phenomenon for their brutal acts of violence. “Look to the sky” becomes both a proclamation of faith and a means of exercising power in the name of faith. Are we humans also not a part of nature?
Nature, with its power to destroy, does not consider nor does it care for human beings. We rely on nature; fishermen catch their livelihood in the sea, yet that same river can swell and consume them. No mercy. Life can end unexpectedly, just like the story in Bahnsen Knights, if certain choices are made. Indeed, there is a disturbing logic to the beliefs held by the Bahnsen Knights, like in Nietzschean nihilism: for humans to transcend their lot, basic aspects of humanity must be discarded to become Übermensch.