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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Silver Dollar Games: Playfully Punk

I don’t know if Silver Games know that they are punk. But they sure seem to be, even if they don’t know it.

Some people confuse punk with a style of dress, assuming that punk is largely a matter of a particular form of loud, obnoxious, and ugly self presentation and a particular style of music that is equally loud, obnoxious, and ugly.

However, the real core of punk is an attitude, and its main mode is antagonism, which is why its various expressions are loud, obnoxious, and ugly. Sometimes this attitude comes in the form of expressions of rage (see Henry Rollins’s incarnation of Black Flag), but, possibly more often, it comes in the form of a playful form of antagonism, a mode adopted at the inception of punk through the lyrics and three-chord aesthetic of The Ramones, continuing onward with the formation of bands like Fear and the Dead Milkmen. Such punk flippancy belongs to all three of the aforementioned bands and is also common in some of the work of bands like Suicidal Tendencies and continues to remain present even in the songs of more recent “pop punk” bands, like Blink 182 and Sum 51.

Witness, for example, Fear’s infamous (and later banned in reruns) Saturday Night Live performance.

The band plays two songs “Beef Bologna”, a song about the lead singer’s penis, followed by “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones”. Between the songs, frontman Lee Ving jokes about and provokes his New York audience, declaring, “It’s great to be here in New Jersey”, while other band members respond to boos and hisses coming from the crowd with statements like, “It’s really good to have a bunch of friends like you here”, spoken in a knowing and sarcastic tone.

Ving’s choice of playing “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones” is a stroke of genius for riling up the New Yorkers in the crowd even more specifically than those brief shots at the audience, though. The song’s lyrics are the very definition of playful antagonism, featuring lines like “New York’s alright if you like tuberculosis” and “New York’s alright if you’re a homosexual”, both of which are lines intended to be mocking, absurd, and purposely immature. The interaction between the band and the audience is pure punk, with the band reveling in their own brand of mockery as well as in the easily won animosity that the crowd assaults them with in return.

A similar playful antagonism can be found in Sid Vicious’s classic performance of Sinatra’s “My Way”.

From the obviously off-key rendition of the first verse to the absurd final execution of the singer’s stuffy audience, everything in this video is played out as an overt representation of punk’s tendency to desire to antagonize and mock what is considered normal and acceptable by “regular” folks.

I’ve read several video game critics attempt to describe the self-identified punk game developer Suda 51 and his studio Grasshopper Manufacture (whose company motto is “Punks Not Dead”) by trying vaguely to allude to the clothing worn by characters in his games and the music that he selects for his soundtracks as evidence of his punk aesthetic. However, since many of his games don’t feature characters that look in the least bit punk or feature music that is especially punk (Killer 7, Lollipop Chainsaw, Killer is Dead, etc.), it is worth nothing that such critics are missing the actual punk elements of Suda’s aesthetics, which are found in these games’ attitudes and how those attitudes are expressed through this central mode of a punk aesthetic, antagonism, and an often comedic antagonism at that.

Suda’s game Sun, Flower, and Rain features a tally of how many steps the protagonist has taken in the game in lieu of listing the player’s “points” at the top of the screen. Indeed, parts of the game can’t be unlocked until reaching a certain amount of steps, making level grinding in the game possible only through the tedious act of simply walking around aimlessly, an achingly irritating (and purposefully so, I think) game mechanic. Likewise, the minigames of the No More Heroes series, like cooking a hamburger to proper specification (medium, rare, or well done) by waiting for a burger to cook and then pushing a single button to complete this “game”, is a mockery of video game players, what they are willing to put up with, and of fun itself by testing the patience of its audience, clearly seeking to aggravate the player again through tediousness and stupidity.

Critics of Suda 51 and punk in general feed into the goal of the punk aesthetic, producing rants about how terrible the game design is, how terrible the singer’s voice is, and how terribly the music is played. Punk itself giggles in response, much as Lee Ving and Fear do in response to their audience in the earlier clip. Suda 51 and punks in general are the big brother that keeps poking you in the ribs because — not despite — the fact that you keep telling him to “quit it”.

All of which returns me to the output of indie developer Silver Dollar Games and their relationship to punk and provocation. Silver Dollar Games has spent years producing one dollar games for Xbox Live’s Indie Games label, and for the most part, these games are terrible. Jonathan and David Flook, the two man development team, have published a game entitled No Luca No in which you swipe one of the analog sticks on an Xbox controller over and over again to keep a cat, the titular Luca, from jumping up on a table to lap up the milk in your cereal. They have made innumerable dating sims with cheaply produced video and what appears to be stock photos of women, like Don’t B Nervous Talking 2 Girls, which ostensibly will teach you how to talk to girls in real life, though mostly is a multiple choice guessing game in which the only option is one of two bad pick up lines. Other “quality” titles include games like Try Not to Fart, Who’s the Daddy?, and Cassie’s Animal Sounds.

The Flooks themselves admit that they “don’t really make games”, describing most of their work as being less like games and more like another only vaguely interactive experience, opening one of those “birthday cards that plays a tune” (Jacob Davis, “Exclusive Interview with Silver Dollar Games on One Finger Death Punch, We’ve Got This Covered, 2014).

In a press release in which he claimed critics have called them “the scourge of XNA [the Xbox Live Indie Games label]”, Jonathan Flook describes the inception of Silver Dollar Games, describes he and his brother as hacks, and uses words like “cool”, “offensive”, “funny”, “stupid”, and “lame” to describe their work:

Silver Dollar Games is best known for their dating games, in fact, they’re only known for their dating games. Actually, if it wasn’t for their game Who Did I Date Last Night, we wouldn’t be around at all. It was that game that allowed Silver Dollar to make all the cool, offensive, funny, stupid, lame, and strange games that we have.

I’m Jon Flook, and my brother is David. We make video games for Xbox Indie Games, although you wouldn’t guess it by looking at our past. We have no programming experience and no formal artistic or computer skills of any kind. We’re just a couple of hacks making games because it’s fun.

In 2007 David was working at a grocery store and I was working at a TV station. David took programming in high school, but never really explored it past that. When he heard about XNA he started learning it immediately. After a couple test projects he began working on his first game, Blazing Birds. Working every day at the grocery store and every night on Blazing Birds didn’t leave much time for World of Warcraft, so he came to me for help. My job at the TV station was no picnic either, but whatever spare time I had I offered up. After months of work, we submitted Blazing Birds to Microsoft’s first Dream Build Play contest in 2007. To our surprise it was the co-winner that year. We were blessed with the huge opportunity to put Blazing Birds on XBLA. (Paul Franzen, ”’Silver Dollar Games Not All Bad,’ Says Silver Dollar Games”, GameCola, 15 May 2011)

This self deprecating, and seemingly earnest tone, is present in any article I read in which the Flooks’ comment on their own work. Even when Silver Dollar Games recently “got serious” about making a game, the really quite exceptional two button action title One Finger Death Punch, this tone remained central to the Silver Dollar narrative. One Finger Death Punch features three different endings, one for each difficulty setting in the game, that all contain both earnestness and a constantly self deprecating commentary.

The first two endings are bizarre and as DIY looking as Silver Dollar’s XNA games. Both feature one of the Flooks sitting in front of a background on which One Finger Death Punch is being played. He acts in both videos almost painfully ingratiating as he thanks the player over and over again for buying the game and supporting indie games in general. Peppered throughout these speeches are moments in which Flook apologizes for the art and claims that he and his brother are no artists and apologizes for the code, claiming that he and his brother really are no programmers.

I watched a documentary on punk (the name of which escapes me at the moment) in which, I believe, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders said something along the lines of: It’s really great to be in a punk band, until you actually play together for a year or two, then you actually learn to play your instruments, and you discover that you aren’t punk anymore. Something like this idea seems to me to be present in these fumbling and awkward endings to Silver Dollar Games’s first really successful release. To be honest about it, though, I can’t really tell if the endings are sincere expressions of gratitude and self effacement or a put on by the Flooks (or possibly both) that simply serve as an additionally playful antagonism of their gamer audience, just as most every game that they have made seems to have been.

The final ending of the game seems to indicate something more like the latter, as the Flooks present a montage of largely stock photos of models (in the vein of the “art” of their earlier games) with one of the brothers’ mouths superimposed over each of the women’s mouths. That brother lip syncs a rap about the studio. This rap is silly in tone, but, like traditional rap music, one in which the rapper attempts to generate ethos and credibility for himself and his game studio by presenting himself as some kind of hardened, experienced badass. And, yet, throughout the video, the Flooks once again denigrate themselves and their work through pop ups that contradict statements that would otherwise claim that Silver Dollar Studios is somehow “cool”.

I realize that one line in the song, “We aim for silver, but we take the gold” is intended to be a play on the game studio’s name, but I can’t help but feel that in some way, this characterization of Silver Dollar Games’s aesthetic goal isn’t an entirely inaccurate one and is also a fairly punk one as well. They have always“aimed for silver”. In other words, they aren’t even trying to be the best at what they do. Indeed, they are aiming below excellence, and aiming below excellence, to me, is almost the very definition of what a punk aesthetic is all about. Being subpar and getting on a stage anyway pisses people off, as punks well know.

Silver Dollar Games is alright if you like tuberculosis.