Reviews

Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist

The concept of video game design and architecture has been expressed by several academics and yet within it there doesn't seem to be much room for Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist.


Publisher: messhof
Genres: Compilation
Price: Free
Multimedia: Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist
Platforms: PC
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Not Rated
Developer: messhof
US release date: 2008-05-19
Website
Developer website

As game designers and consumers continue to explore the world of games as art, inevitably lines must be drawn in the sand on what distinguishes these games from more mainstream products. Just as art is not confined to being strictly about making people happy or awed, neither are games confined to personal fulfillment or easy rewards. Such fun and easy games are designed to appeal to as many people as possible, but what the art game movement has begun to establish is that games can enjoy a smaller audience for the sake of going beyond such incentives. Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist is a prime example of a game experimenting and pushing the boundaries of the video game world with no concerns about explaining itself or fitting into any simple niche. It is about creating an artistic experience for the player.

Created by Mark Essen, more commonly known as messhof, the game consists of four loosely conceptualized levels. The game begins with a single cutscene: a drawing of a yellow old man with red eyes and a shifting background. The phrase, "I feel like I been awake before but I can't be sure and I'm drugged up on drugs and I think they are affecting me" rolls across the screen and then you're off. The opening level is a disorienting drunk driving experience, the second involves a clock tower crashing into satellites, the third takes place in zero gravity, and the fourth involves a tentacle monster made of baby parts. messhof explains in an e-mail, "It puts you in a weird place when you see that and start the game. Some of the future mechanized megabortion stuff [in earlier versions] still comes through and you can make connections in other places, but I don't mean it to be too literal. It's more like 'you don't have any power, you're just some bottom rung dude and you're going to have to do some stuff you may not be that comfortable doing.'" There is never an explicit moment where you perform anything like abortion in the game, but using the word to induce the mind frame of loss and innocence prepositions the player experience. It makes one think about the smashed cars, satellites, and ultimately the tentacle baby monster in a manner that crosses over to the surreal.

These elements exist alongside multiple layers of visuals to help reinforce the experience. It was long ago discovered that video games could induce vertigo and motion sickness, but few have ever utilized them within the game design. messhof notes, "There are what I hoped to be nausea inducing aspects in all of the levels, mostly coming from the smoke and constant camera rotation. I wanted these to become more and more under your control as you progressed in the game, for example the drunk driving level is completely out of your hands, with a constant camera rotation and unavoidable accidents. The rocket ship level puts you in the perspective of the rocket, which you have total control of but there isn't much going on around you so it's easy to lose your bearings. Each adjustment you make sends out billows of smoke that obstruct your view. The camera on the space station level rotates left and right, attempting to simulate the disorientation of zero g." For an initial play-through, the design mostly comes across as masochistic. Your capacity to not vomit during the last level is probably the greatest challenge offered. Yet on subsequent play-throughs one begins to realize that here is a game purposefully inducing nausea in response to the player input. Even though a spinning room isn't subtle, combined with the abortion reference, it certainly is effective. It also applies photos from real life, to create a disturbing combination of pixelated art and realistic imagery. "The photographs are meant to put you out of your comfort zone a little, or just to make you take a step back and look at the scene and not just see things as game objects that you have to avoid or collect," messhof explains.

The game also uses sound and music in very interesting ways. The first level consists of random noises and sounds and as you go through each level this slowly becomes more coherent and patterned. The last level consists of a loud and booming bass that adds to the nausea and leaves the player wondering about the meaning of the game all the more. messhof states, "I wanted a lot of the earlier stages to feel really ominous and strange, so Jordan and I took some of our old oscillator box material from Flywrench, slowed it down, and boosted the bass way up. The music is sort of subtle, and I don't think you really pay attention to it too much until the end, but the bass makes your body feel it more subconsciously."

How does a game that is designed to induce nausea, make the player uncomfortable, and remain totally ambiguous compare to mainstream ideals? What does a game designed to sell consider itself as opposed to this? Hideo Kojima, in an interview with Edge Magazine explains, "Art is the stuff you find in the museum, whether it be a painting or a statue. What I'm doing, what videogame creators are doing, is running the museum -- how do we light up things, where do we place things, how do we sell tickets? It's basically running the museum for those who come to the museum to look at the art. For better or worse, what I do, Hideo Kojima, myself, is run the museum and also create the art that's displayed in the museum."

The concept of video game design and architecture has been expressed by several academics and yet within it there doesn't seem to be much room for Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist. messhof muses, "They're talking about videogames in the Videogames Industry sense. In that setting, of course you'd want to make games for mass appeal. It doesn't make sense to try and make an artistic game when you know you have to sell a couple million copies. Art Games don't rely on the same sorts of things because they're not intended for everyone. A game doesn't have to be a game, because it's really just a computer program. You can have things on screen interact in any way you choose. Personally, I think that it needs a certain tension between the game and the player with button presses manipulating that tension. It can just be an interactive piece of art because it's expressive of this something and engages the player in some way."

This, then, brings us to the basic question of what the game's experience or meaning is supposed to be. Chris Dahlen of Save the Robot comments, "I can imagine a theme throughout the game, where an abortionist dies in a fiery bus crash and then is transformed into the afterlife into a monster -- a monster that still eats babies, but this time, it is itself a baby, which is weird." Personally, I found the game to be about the development of a creative idea. It begins with the hazed, crazy state where unique concepts are born. Each level is a symbol of the metamorphosis, the babies representing the idea itself, and the ending fits as the final horrible state where your own ideas must compete and destroy others. messhof himself, however, is a bit more tight-lipped on the topic. "I've heard it's about becoming god," was all he offered. When asked to give something to compare it to, he only said that it worked like a simulation.

This is, perhaps, the most appropriate answer for a game claiming to be art. Many of the most eccentric and emotionally inspiring games are the result of happy accidents and meanings not intended by their creator. In an interview with Fumito Ueda, creator of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, he explains that the vast majority of the reactions he reads are unexpected. He started with an image or idea and the resulting interpretations and narrative were created by the players later on. messhof's ambivalence may draw from that same realization: that video games, as with all artistic mediums, must inevitably leave the meaning and ideas up to the audience.

Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist can be downloaded for free and in just one play-through will have a remarkable effect on anyone's "games as art" conversation. What makes it so great is that it often creates more questions than answers.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less
Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image