Sacrifice — the lost world

Sacrifice_1920x1080

The year 2000 saw the release of Deus Ex and Sacrificeboth innovative, genre-bending titles for the PC. The first would go on to have strong sales, critical acclaim, and would retrospectively redeem John Romero’s troubled studio, Ion Storm. The second would garner critical acclaim but none of the sales: it would be the last burst of creativity from Shiny Entertainment before the studio would go on to make three terrible licensed games that buried forever its reputation for creating fun, unique, and often humourous games. 15 years on, Deus Ex has spawned two sequelswith a third due out in 2016 — and was recently the focus of an oral history and video retrospective on Gamasutra. Deus Ex is a byword for innovative, immersive and intelligent game design and has had a significant influence on first-person action titles and role-playing games, while Sacrifice — also innovative, immersive, and intelligent — has disappeared down the annals of video game history, never to be heard of again.

A tale of two games

What happened? Why did Deus Ex flourish and Sacrifice simply vanish? I think the answer lies in these games respective genres and design histories. Deus Ex is a blend of first-person gaming and role-playing and is also the culmination of a design philosophy of immersive, first person games pioneered by Looking Glass Studios that began with Ultima Underworld and then continued with System Shock and Thief. Warren Spector, the head of Ion Storm Austin and Deus Ex‘s director, was a game designer of considerable reputation who had also been producer on both Ultima Underworld and System Shock while at Origin Systems, Looking Glass Studio’s publisher. When Looking Glass Studios closed down in 2000, he folded some of its personnel into the development team for Deus Ex. A storied history of developing and refining similar design concepts for half a decade as well as the — by that time — familiarity of navigating 3D spaces from a first-person point of view certainly helped Deus Ex‘s general appeal.

Sacrifice on the other hand blended real-time strategy conventions with the frenetic pace of third-person action games and mild role-playing. You are there on the battlefield, summoning strange creatures that look as if they just fell out of a painting by Martin de Vos or Hieronymus Bosch, and casting spells at opposing wizards and their armies. In Kieron Gillen’s interview with Sacrifice‘s lead designer Eric Flannum, Flannum confessed that Sacrifice didn’t have a difficulty curve but rather “a difficulty wall.” This is a game that comes with not one but three different tutorial missions for you to play: there are just that many new concepts you have to buy into. This might have had to do with the fact that the game had a core design team of just three. Shiny Entertainment was a successful contributor to gaming in the 90s, with the 2D platformer Earthworm Jim, and a successful breakthrough into 3D with MDK. The beginning of the end came at the start of the new millennium: Messiah, the 3D game Shiny used to debut their new tessellation technology was a mess of weird ideas that never really clicked. Sacrifice on the other hand was a mess of even weirder ideas that absolutely worked. However, neither game sold much and the company’s reputation for smart, unconventional games disappeared forever.

Sacrifice Multiplayer

Sacrifice blends real-time strategy conventions with the frenetic pace of third-person action games.

Why am I taking so much time to explain what Sacrifice became rather than what the game actually is? As Kieron Gillen, one of the few game critics who ever championed Sacrifice, so aptly put it in his overview of the game:

Sacrifice reminds me exactly how good, how imaginative, how brilliant it’s possible for a videogame to be and it’s clear that no-one’s going to spend serious money on making a game like it ever again.

It’s because I want you to understand: the fact that this game didn’t have more of an affect on games and games history is heart-breaking. To talk about Sacrifice is to talk about a world that can no longer exist. This isn’t to say that there aren’t great, interesting, experimental, or even unique games being produced today — it’s just that we’ll probably never something quite like Sacrifice appearing again in our lifetime. Unlike Homeworld we won’t see a lovingly remastered version of the game. We won’t even see a revival —in the same way that classic cRPGs have been revived for the PC through Kickstarter — of its particular blend of third-person action and real-time strategy.

Much like the animated films of Fleischer Studios, Sacrifice never influenced games in a larger fashion, remaining sealed forever within its own mysterious world. So why is this game so important to me?

Sacrifice, my first immersive world

Sacrifice is a game of deep, personal significance for me: it showed me just what was possible in the context of a video game. I first came across Sacrifice in 2003. It was a piece of software packaged with a new computer my father had built at a local computer store. All I had to go on for a recommendation was purple CD that had a strange-looking creature with a cape and spiked head running into the clasped hands of a God.

It was a pretty grey, bleak and rainy morning in early spring. There wasn’t much for me to do so trying a game that came with our new computer seemed as good an idea as any. The opening of the game makes you feel like you’re stepping into a different alien world. The music is haunting and ethereal and you’re greeted with the image of portal, whirling and spinning out of control. When I finally opened the first tutorial mission, I was greeted with the site of a large, insectoid creature standing in the midst of a beautiful green landscape. My breath was nearly taken away. The landscape and the sky were the most beautiful I’d ever seen in a game. While Sacrifice looks a little more dated now than it did in 2003 when I first played it, I’d never seen anything that looked so verdant and alive in a game before. The music was also incredible; it was epic and expansive much like the tesselated landscape I saw before me — the possibilities seemed endless. A little homunculus with small purple pants flew over to me and greeted me in a British accent, and there my adventures began.

My first look at Sacrifice when playing its first tutorial mission.

My first look at Sacrifice when playing its first tutorial mission.

Sacrifice’s story is basically a black comedy version of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. I’m not kidding— that’s the best possible description of the game’s narrative.There are five gods — Persephone, the God of Life, James, the God of Earth, Stratos, the God of Air, Pyro, the God of Fire, and Charnel, the God of Death. To showcase just how ridiculousl this game is: Stratos is essentially a balloon being continually inflated and deflated as he talks to you. He’s also voiced by Tim Curry. James is basically a 3D version of Shiny’s Earthworm Jim wearing overalls. When Pyro or anyone else speaks about Pyro’s inventions, a trademark symbol is added after each instance. During an argument among the Gods Persephone says “Charnel! Death isn’t the answer to everything!” to which he replies: “Yes, torture also has its merits.” Charnel later says he doesn’t want to destroy the world “because that’s where all the best slaughter takes place, you know!” The script is often perfect in its comic timing.

The game’s design looks as if Antoni Gaudi, Salvador Dali, and Hieronymus Bosch had a fun weekend together. The actual gameplay has a few twists on regular strategy tropes. First, instead of being a disembodied person overlooking the entire battlefield, you’re there in the thick of it with the rest of your army. You are responsible for casting spells, summoning creatures, and building the structures that will ensure your victory over any rival wizards. You also each have an altar dedicated to your chosen God. The point of the game is to fight enemy wizards, destroying their structures, and sacrificing their creatures at your altar to get souls. To defeat them you have to take one of your own creatures to their altar and sacrifice it there because if you sacrifice at another wizard’s altar their altar is desecrated and the wizard is banished from the realm, and you win. Got it?

The game at times is also really, really difficult (remember the difficulty wall?) and I can see how that limited its appeal. I remember when I first played I was completely stuck on Charnel’s second mission where you have to resurrect a forbidden demon gate. A rival wizard — an ethereal and distant sorcerer by the name of Lady Abraxus — simply kept pummeling me! By some miracle I found the right combination of creatures and spells and was able to pull on through. It might have been that I memorized the keyboard shortcuts for the most important spells. I don’t remember. Anyway, it “clicked” for me and then I was off. It was my first, truly immersive world; the first time I played a game that I felt was inside a unique, living, breathing, and interesting world.

Sacrifice game

One of Sacrifice’s campaign missions.

I was so passionate about the game that I even tried using it’s custom map-building tool, Scapex, to create worlds of my own. Building maps was easy and intuitive to use. You simply dragged and dropped different pieces of the world, raising impossible mountains or even placing or even creating small villages full of interesting looking houses and creatures. I even wanted to create a series of maps for my favourite character from the game, a gravelly voiced necromancer with a top hat named The Ragman. Sadly, nothing came of my youthful ambition except a few custom maps I played myself, but it was still fun and interesting nonetheless. This was my attempt to get into the guts of the game, to discover more about this fascinating world and its creatures.

Sacrifice is the reason I think games are important cultural artifacts to write about. It’s what showed me that games were more than narratives about shooting things with guns or lasers. It taught me that games can be smart and different too. For me it’s a game of endless possibilities and branching storylines, of different nuances and ways of looking at a three dimensional world, of beautiful, haunting melodies played through mysterious islands floating in the sky.

Advertisements

Where in the world did Carmen Sandiego go?

carmen_sandiego

If you grew up in the ’90s and watched a lot of PBS, chances are that you came across Lynne Thigpen as The Chief letting you know that Carmen Sandiego had nabbed another precious monument and that it was up to an assorted group of whiz kids to stop her, armed only with a buzzer and a sufficient grasp of world geography. Chances are that in the middle of the previous sentence you began to hum the theme song or can hear Thigpen’s voice telling you “Carmen Sandiego has struck again!” And chances are that you may or may not have played the series of fantastic educational games — first for DOS and then Windows — that starred the master thief. In the ’90s, Carmen Sandiego was everywhere and almost every kid with access to a school computer lab, a home computer, or just watching TV, knew that she and her V.I.L.E. agents were out there stealing great cultural artifacts and that only you, the prospective gumshoe, or the TV show’s agents, could possibly defeat her.

I came to know Carmen Sandiego watching PBS on weekday afternoons. My parents would have to peel me away from the TV for dinner because I needed to know which one of the newly christened ACME agents would be the hero, answering enough skill-testing questions about geography to halt Carmen Sandiego’s latest diabolical scheme. My next encounter with Carmen Sandiego came when I was at bargain bin at a local Loblaws and picked up a World Almanac that had been separated from the 1996 reboot of Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? I wish I still had it because I would spend hours reading it, uncovering all the facts I could such as when the Eiffel Tower was first built and the actual size of the great pyramids of Giza. I would spend hours at the computer lab of my elementary school trying to beat the game and stop her agents with names like Sarah Nade, Sarah Bellum, and M.T. Pockets. My Carmen Sandiego fandom reached its peak when I was given a copy of the 1997 version of Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego? (also known as Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time), I played this game religiously on my parents’ ’98 Compaq Presario, spending significant amounts of time with Hatsheput, Benjamin Franklin, Lewis & Clerk, Thomas Edison, and even Yuri Gagarin. I also preferred the theme song for the less successful Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego? game show on PBS than the more famous a cappella theme used for Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? even though it’s terrible.

You know when The Chief (Lynne Thigpen) appeared things were getting serious

You know when The Chief (Lynne Thigpen) appeared things were getting serious

And then silence. Carmen seemed to disappear forever both from the TV and the computer screen. Did she pull off a final successful caper that let her be set for life? No. It’s only recently I learned the reason for the decline of children’s educational games.

In this excellent overview of the success and significance of children’s “edutainment” games of the 90s, the author reveals that it was Softkey, a CD-ROM distribution company, merging with The Learning Company and then Brøderbund (the makers of Carmen Sandiego) that spelled the beginning of the end for quality children’s educational games, including Carmen Sandiego. A surprising twist to all of this is that it was Kevin O’Leary, the founder of Softkey, and awful former host of both CBC’s Dragon’s Den and the Lang & O’Leary Exchange, that was responsible for this decline. Talking to Ken Goldstein, Broderbund’s former vice president of education and entertainment,  the Gamasutra article reveals why the merger with Softkey/The Learning Company was so disastrous:

“The new pricing model, driven by both Softkey and every other developer in the business selling CD-ROMs at such low prices, destroyed the economic viability of the edutainment production cycle. Goldstein was obviously frustrated with the merger, but 17 years later, he says it’s water under the bridge. To him, the Broderbund model was built on the philosophy of “people–products–profit,” where talented people created good product that drove profit, but once the merger kicked in, that philosophy seemed to flow in reverse, and Broderbund, now part of The Learning Company, was sold to Mattel.”

Carmen Sandiego was a victim of neoliberalism! As this Globe & Mail article reveals, Softkey’s rebranding as The Learning Company, and eventual sale to Mattel, went so badly that O’Leary was forced out. The various divisions of The Learning Company were then broken up and sold, thus ending an era of great children’s games. Kevin O’Leary — a man almost singularly responsible for the disappearance of Carmen Sandiego and Reading Rabbit, and for Chris Hedges never being interviewed by the CBC again.

Carmen Sandiego

It’s difficult to express fully just how significant Carmen Sandiego was as a video game antagonist, and how the digital play spaces offered to children through her games were. Carmen Sandiego wasn’t good because you could pick up some trivia about the Declaration of Independence or the population of Iowa, it was good because it offered you, the player, a wondrous and imaginative place filled with improbable technology, world and time travel, and one of gaming’s best villains. Carmen was clever, mysterious, and always one step ahead of you. These games were a great balance of adventure game mechanics and playful, exquisitely textured narratives. You wanted to live inside these worlds and get to know its eccentric characters that inhabited them a little more. The world almanacs and exquisitely detailed manuals that came bundled with each game added another level of detail, giving you a whole other level of experience and knowledge outside of the game. I always felt bad catching Carmen Sandiego because I wanted her to accomplish her goals, to actually alter the course of world history; that’s just how powerful she was. How could she not get away it?

Unfortunately experiencing Carmen Sandiego’s past glories are difficult. Although you have the original Where In The World? and Where In Time?  available on the Internet Archive’s virtual DOS player, the later CD-ROM reboots made for Windows (my personal favourites) have never been restored for modern computers even though websites like GOG.com and studios like Night Dive have shown restoring classic PC games is both an in-demand and profitable enterprise. It’s sad that children aren’t getting to experience Carmen Sandiego (or someone like her) in 2015. If there’s one thing from the ’90s that I want to come back, it’s Carmen Sandiego and the devious plots that only a child’s imagination could foil.

Now here’s the terrible (but wonderful) Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego? game show theme.

Someday Soundtracks: “Hi-Tone Fandango”

Someday Soundtracks is a semi-regular feature where I post a great track from one of my favourite games.

Peter McConnell‘s soundtracks for both Lucasarts and Double Fine are arguably just as responsible for the success of their games as much as the immersive story and great characters created by designers like Tim Schaefer, Ron Gilbert, or Steve Grossman. Grim Fandango is the apotheosis of the classic Lucasarts adventure game and McConnell’s big band orchestration (with hints of bebop, swing, and Mexican folk music) adds a lot to its blend of 40s noir and Aztec mythology. I’ll randomly throw on the game’s soundtrack, whether I’m busy and need to concentrate or I’m just looking to relax, because it has so much to offer. “Hi-Tone Fandango” is my favourite track, and it plays while Manny wanders around the undead city of Rubacava just outside his own Calavera Cafe (the equivalent of Rick Blaine’s Cafe American in Casablanca). Give it a listen and imagine that you’re chasing a mystery in the middle of the night.

Grim-Fandango-Remastered

Are video games too violent?

Doom

The question of violence in video games has recently been cropping up a bit more recently, and as the understanding and development of unique virtual spaces continues to advance, it’s important to consider what having the ability to destroy virtual lives actually means. Recently Critical Distance — a fantastic aggregator of commentary and criticism on digital games— posted two pieces discussing violence in video games: “Violence begets violence” the first post by game designer Michaël Samyn on his new blog Silent No More, and “Fight Club: How Masculine Fragility Is Limiting Innovation In Games” by Sheva of FemHype.

Both pieces are interesting in the contrasting ways they address the prevalence of violence as a mechanic in video games, what the consequences of violent video games might be, and what steps should be taken in the future to diversify games and gameplay. Of the two pieces, I liked the latter more than former, and it’s interesting how they capture the relative successes and shortcomings of the discussion about violence in video games.

After violent games, violent gamers

Michaël Samyn is a noted game designer, who as part of Tale of Tales,  focused on creating immersive, meditative games like The Endless Forest and narrative driven games like The Path and Sunset. This is a design philosophy that I wholeheartedly agree with and always happy to see implemented more. However, I have some disagreements with the major arguments of his piece “Violence begets violence .

After stating that many online competitive spaces often feature intolerance, bullying, and harassment (which is undoubtedly true), he argues:

“We don’t need theories about the correlation between violent games and violent behavior. Many players of violent and antagonistic games engage in violent and antagonistic behavior. Whether violent people are attracted to games or games arouse violent emotions is irrelevant.”

For Samyn, there is a direct causal link between violent games and violent behaviour. He lays blame at the feet of the games industry, which he says “actively breeds a group of belligerent hooligans for profit.” He continues: “And the longer this process continues, the tighter the vicious circle becomes: only violent games sell well, so only those get made, so only violent people buy games, and so on.” He compares the games industry to the gun industry in the United States, which claims no responsibility for the deaths caused by the weapons they sell. He concludes by writing:

“A game developer who claims to be a peaceful tolerant person while producing murder simulators is a hypocrite. I will not accuse them of being directly responsible for mass shootings and online harassment. But they are beyond a doubt guilty of neglecting to prevent such things.”

There’s a lot to process here. While, like Samyn, I’m frustrated that Mature (M-rated) titles are so heavily marketed — even though they only make up about less than 10 per cent of games produced — I find his argument to be flawed, reductive, and not adequate in addressing the actual structures that create violence in the first place.

Samyn’s argument basically boils down to post hoc ergo proctor hoc, or “after this therefore because of this.” There are violent games and there are also violent gamers, so one must cause the other. To follow his line of thought, one would have to believe that players of M-rated games are not interested in challenge or narrative or wanting to experience something cool and different; that all they want to do is spend all their time killing virtual people, and that this eventually leads them into attacking others in the real world, whether online or in person.

Now to be fair, there are plenty of people who play games like Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim or Fallout and see how much chaos they can create, but is this necessarily a sign of latent violent tendencies? Or could this be construed more as an individual wanting to test the limits of a designer’s intentions within a virtual world? I think the latter is more likely than the former mostly because destruction in a virtual space does not necessarily signal a desire to destroy in a real one. While games, like other media such as books, TV, movies, and so forth certainly affect us emotionally, making us joyful, sad, intrigued, or even occasionally angry, it would be wrong to say that the affective relationship one has to their media completely transforms them into something they are not. There are more complex phenomena at work and to reduce it to one simple cause is to actually denigrate the actual power of the medium that one is criticizing or praising.

This passage is particularly frustrating:

“I think game developers, as creative people, probably middle class, probably intellectuals, underestimate how unstable some members of their audience are, how isolated they live, how little access they have to education and broader culture, how little context to place these games in that are so important to their sense of self. We could help these people with entertainment that demonstrates the beauty of life, the value of non-violent interactions, how much better it feels to care than to hurt, how big and diverse the world is, and so on.”

This assumes two things:  that only uncultured, unsophisticated, and disenfranchised folks engage in online harassment and see violent games as their raison d’etre, and that games that centre story or interactivity or quiet, meditative spaces rather than action and violence should be created as some sort of corrective on bad behaviour—that these can’t simply exist or be developed for their own sake— and affect people in a way that’s deep and significant without serving an undeniable social good. Simply stating that more empathetic games will create more empathetic gamers is just as bad as saying violent games create violent gamers: it’s not a simple 1:1 relationship. Furthermore, such an argument seems to say that a simple change in consumption will lead to a change in attitudes. Games, while powerfully affective are not necessarily motivational: what one does in a game is not tied to what one does in real life, and we need to do more than change games to change attitudes.

Let’s talk about Fight Club

This is brings us to Sheva’s “Fight Club” piece on FemHype, which offers a more nuanced and interesting discussion of what violence means in the context of gaming. The piece wonders why it is that despite our ability to now craft incredible virtual worlds that violence is often retained as the core mechanic. Other things can be done, but still in a big open-world role-playing game like Fallout 3, you’ll be spending a great deal more time shooting giant ants and Super Mutants than, say, debating The Enclave on their lack of a constitutional mandate. At first, Sheva says, her reaction in conversation with others was to advocate for more choice even in violent games, but then she realized that even in a game where you can choose not to be violent, violence still informs the game world and how the player progresses. So even if violence doesn’t create violent video gamers why is there such an insistence on violence existing in games in the first place? Sheva writes:

“There is a growing multitude of games that don’t utilize violence as a central mechanic. Many of these are in the independent sector—The Stanley Parable, Papers, Please, and Never Alone are a few of my personal favorites. Telltale Games’ entire catalogue since the release of season one of The Walking Dead has had conversation and social maneuvering as the central game mechanic. Animal Crossing, The Sims, and Minecraft are all worldwide sensations made by what one would now consider to be AAA companies, and yet, since not one of these games has violence as a core mechanic, each and every one of them has been criticized as not being ‘game-y’ enough.”

Gone Home game

This gets us closer to what is going on, that there is a tendency for people to argue that games without violence as a central mechanic are not games. This a dangerous tactic often used in online debates to delegitimize the significant, artistic work done by independent game developers who are expanding the language of games. For example, although a game like Gone Home was widely praised by the gaming press and was a commercial success, there was a vocal group of gamers who argued that since Gone Home is about exploration and discovery it cannot be a real game. This is where we get to the root cause of the kind of online harassment we see too often on Twitter and other online spaces: the pernicious belief that games and other media should only have one form, and that they exist to cater to a single group of male gamers. As Sheva says in her article:

“Violence, goes the logic, is what makes a game masculine—and, by extension, being masculine is what makes a video game a video game.”

It’s this belief system which causes women, persons of colour, and others to be attacked online for even suggesting that games should do more. One might say that it’s the players and not the game. The answer is both yes and no. This behaviour is informed by a specific kind of reactionary right-wing ideology — the same you find fighting against gay marriage, health care, or welfare. It’s the ideology that is against equality of any kind, that wishes to preserve one type of power and privilege for a limited group of people. This is the root of the “masculine fragility” that Sheva mentions in her article — it is an attempt to circumvent the greater equality afforded everyone within games and games culture through intimidation, fear, and harassment.

Playing a violent game or making one or even enjoying one doesn’t make you a bad person, but seeing it as the only expressive form for games and then attacking other people for disagreeing with you certainly does. It is only through more sophisticated critical commentary, the building of new, diverse communities of game creators, the continued expansion of the expressive power of the medium, and actively challenging the social and economic structures that reproduce, support, and enable one limited point of view about games, that we will ensure that a safe space for both players and creators will be the norm rather than a pleasant exception.

The legacy of Max and Dave Fleischer lives on in Cuphead

Cuphead_CutScene

Max and Dave Fleischer are contradictory figures within the history of American animation. On the one hand, they introduced an entirely unique visual language in the animated shorts they produced from the 1920s into the early 1940s. A great Fleischer cartoon will transform itself in surprising ways, juxtaposing surrealistic metamorphoses with extreme comic violence. But however singularly weird or bizarre their cartoons could be neither Max or Dave had a clear strategy with the cartoons they produced, and as a result some of their efforts with memorable characters like Betty Boop, Popeye, and Bluto, tended to look a little haphazard and slapped together as they often chose expediency over consistency or subtle characterization.

In Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation In Its Golden Age, animation historian Michael Barrier writes, reflecting on Dave Fleischer (who directed every short the studio produced), and on the legacy of Fleischer Studios’ cartoons generally:

[His] casual contributions to the cartoons left untouched their essentially mechanical, unimaginative core. Interpolating bizarre gags and rhythmic twitching into cartoons otherwise dominated by smooth, unaccented animation meant that those cartoons took on a hallucinatory quality: they were, in their zombielike pacing, their aimlessness, and their arbitrary transformations, literally dreamlike.”

Despite Barrier’s heavy note of critique many of the features he mentions above are what made the Fleischer cartoons from the 30s so unique. Dave’s comic anarchy and Max’s cool detachment came together to create an odd, violent universe, populated by some of the most eccentric characters and situations to ever be devised for a seven minute cartoon. Now the anarchical, accidental, arbitrary universe of the Fleischers is being resurrected in a curious way: a video game about two characters named Cuphead and Mugman attempting to settle a debt with the devil.

Developed by Studio MDHR, Cuphead is a run and gun platformer inspired by games like Megaman and Contra, designed to look like a cartoon short from the 1930s. The studio is animating the characters using pencil, ink, and drawing board as well as hand-painting all the backgrounds, giving the game a lush Technicolor finish. It’s all a part of their effort to make Cuphead look as authentic as possible. While some have compared Cuphead to early Walt Disney shorts or even Terrytoons and the Van Beuren Studio, it’s clear that Fleischer Studios’ shorts of the 1930s are the game’s most decisive influence.

In an interview with the website SlashGear last year, the studio’s founders and lead developers for Cuphead —interestingly also a pair of brothers, Jared and Chad Moldenhauer — cited five cartoons as being a specific point of reference for the game “Swing You Sinners” (1930), “Bimbo’s Initiation” (1931), “Minnie the Moocher” (1932), and “Cobweb Hotel” (1936) . All five were made by Fleischer Studios. In the same article, Jared Moldenhauer confirmed that Fleischer Studios was the game’s biggest influence and in an interview with Kill Screen, Chad Moldenhauer, the game’s art director, described Fleischer Studios as the “magnetic north” for Cuphead’s artstyle.

I’d like to take some time to showcase a few other Fleischer shorts to show just how much Cuphead is drawing on a similar art style, direction, and even making a few subtle references with certain boss encounters in the game.

First is the 1934 Betty Boop short “Red Hot Mama” in which Betty turns up the heat in her cabin during a snow storm and dreams of being transported to Hell.

Of course, this is the Fleischer brothers’ version of Hell so delightful absurdities abound, like a devilish fire brigade burning down a house with other devils trapped inside (and celebrating), or Betty literally giving Satan and his minions the cold shoulder.

Max Fleischer was the studio's lead animator and resident inventor.

Max Fleischer was the studio’s lead animator and resident inventor.

It’s clear from watching this short that the funny- looking, grotesque devils and that the Fleischers’ vision of a swingin’ hell has influenced the Moldenhauers’ own version of the Devil in Cuphead. This short is a personal favourite of mine and one of the last really good Betty cartoons before the Production Code made the Fleischers clean up Betty Boop.

You might also notice a strange twitchy quality to the characters in the short above and others I’ve linked to in this post. Much of this had to do with Dave Fleischer’s insistence that characters had to constantly be moving, often in time with the music, as he believed this increased the humour of the cartoon and kept up the audience’s level of interest.

1933’s “Snow-White” is another interesting Fleischer short most of which was impressively drawn and animated by Roland “Doc” Crandall over a six-month period. This cartoon successfully burlesques the story of Snow White, with Betty Boop starring as the fairy-tale heroine. It features some of the studio’s best use of transformation for comic effect, like the evil queen’s face turns for a moment into a frying pan with bacon and eggs as she glowers at Betty. This cartoon is also one of three collaborations the Fleischers did with 30s jazz crooner and bandleader Cab Calloway, with Cab having his movements rotoscoped (essentially he was filmed and then had his movements traced over and animated on a cel with a special camera invented by Max Fleischer), while singing “Saint James Infirmary Blues.” The other two cartoons are “Minnie the Moocher” and the “Old Man of the Mountain“, where Cab also dances and sings the titular songs. It should be noted that Cuphead is utilizing a jazz soundtrack.

“Popeye Meets Sindbad The Sailor” is one of the Fleischer’s best cartoons, with great music, wonderful art direction, and starring regular Popeye heavy Bluto as a very unusual but fun version of Sinbad. The cartoon is also 17 minutes—one of three Popeye “two-reelers” made combining Popeye with tales from the Arabian nights. If you notice a strange 3D effect in the cartoon this is because of the Stereoptical Process — invented by Max Fleischer — that combined two-dimensional animated characters with three-dimensional dioramas. Cuphead definitely draws its color palette from the Technicolor cartoon shorts of the 1930s and they even have boss encounter based on Popeye’s version Sinbad.

Screenshot of Captain Silver boss encounter from Cuphead

Screenshot of Captain Silver boss encounter from Cuphead.

Why have the Fleischers had such a decisive influence on the Moldenhauers’ game, even more so than other cartoon studios from the 1930s? This is because the qualities mentioned earlier: the unusual transformations, the bouncy, mechanistic quality of each character’s movement and the pervasive sense of a world on the brink of collapsing into total mania is fitting for a run n’ gun video game with a focus on big boss battles. The kind of metamorphoses employed by the Fleischers can be used to challenge the player by adding a level of unpredictability to each encounter. Cuphead and Mugman are also great Fleischer protagonists — scrappy individuals fighting for survival in an absurd universe.

In 1942, Fleischer Studios was shut down by Paramount, the movie studio responsible for funding and distributing the studio’s animated shorts. Max and Dave Fleischer, the founders of the studio, and the two men most responsible for the considerable success it enjoyed from the 1920s until the 1940s were forced out. Max was devastated while Dave remained mostly indifferent, having left months earlier to head up Columbia’s Screen Gems. The brothers had not been speaking to each other for some time due to creative and professional disagreements over the day-to-day operation of the studio. The studio was later reopened at much cheaper cost to Paramount as Famous Studios, with Max Fleischer’s son-in-law, Seymour Kneitel, put in charge. Max and Dave would never do anything of note in cartoons again. Many of the Fleischers’ achievements belonged to them alone; their hermetic world of cartoon mayhem has inspired a few animators along the way, but has never dominated the rules and aesthetics of animation the way Disney has for the last 90 years.

Although we only have a couple of trailers and a few gameplay videos to go on, I hope Cuphead is significant enough to open up a tiny crack in our more austere, buttoned down world on the other side of the screen, to introduce some of that jazzy mayhem to those of us suffering in this climate of economic depression. I hope the Moldenhauer brothers are able to do something great, something that adds to the legacy of the two brothers from Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York, who carved out their own strange hub within the American imagination. I want them to do it—even if it takes a few cans of spinach for them to get there.

The immersive world: a declaration of faith

There is a central conflict that defines us — it is the conflict between our selves and our ideas; between the physical and conceptual; the tangible and the ephemeral; the virtual and the real. T.S. Eliot once wrote that human beings cannot take much reality. Our ability to conceive and understand the abstract, the intellectual, the unperceivable is both a source of joy and suffering for us. We can imagine ourselves on any plane and in any place at any time; but that we cannot appear there instantaneously or make these simple imaginings materialize at a whim provides the foundation for a certain kind of melancholy: that we can imagine new and better worlds but cannot simply put ourselves there.

This conflict was best revealed by William Blake in his poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

He writes:

 All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.

  1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
    2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.
    3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.

But the following Contraries to these are True

  1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age
  2.  Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
  3.  Energy is Eternal Delight

William Blake still remains one of the best archaeologists of the human imagination. He understood that “Imagination Is Not A State; It Is Human Existence Itself.” The above passage covers the inner conflict between the individual and the idea, and how the imaginative itself is often denigrated and placed below all other things, either by us or by those who refuse to value it. Blake believed that art and all associated works of the imagination could alter our perceptions enough that we could experience the world as it truly is. “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”

To that end, I believe that the stories we tell affect who we are. I also believe that the worlds woven by others through their words, ideas, or pictures have a considerable affect on how we tell our own stories. I firmly believe that one of the most powerful vehicles for telling our stories and for experiencing the stories of others is to do so through play. Play offers us one of the most accessible and safest ways to mediate the conflict between our selves and our ideas. Play especially through games, provide a fun way to order and give meaning to the internal self. Games and other forms of play are not only systems of rules, but platforms for powerful stories. One of the powerful forms of media providing us with this combination of play and story-telling is digital games.

Ray Bradbury wrote, in defense of fantastic literature, that we should not call it escape literature, but instead return literature. We go somewhere else for however long it takes to experience the story, inhabiting a sovereign universe and then return: perhaps happier, maybe made more insightful, and hopefully better than before. This may seem a bit idealistic, but I believe this to be the case. Play provides us with a very important world, an immersive world. I believe some of the most inventive, interactive, and immersive worlds can be found in digital games.

I cannot tell you the precise moment I became aware of the importance of the combination of digitality and play, and how I felt it was necessary (even if it was just in blog form) to explicate the connection between the two. This connection is something I’ve thought about for many years, but have only recently been able to articulate. It may have come about while I was reading Harold Goldberg’s amusingly titled All Your Base Are Belong To Us, which chronicles the rise of video games as both a business and a story-telling medium through the stories of specific designers at specific moments of video game history.

It was while reading about the struggles of specific designers like Roberta Williams or Ken Levine to bring about the worlds they wanted to play in, or how one of the first interactive games with graphical display, Tennis For Two, was created on a whim by William Higinbotham— a scientist who was also part of the team that created the atomic bomb — that I realized something important: the digital game is an accidental medium, something that by all rights should not even exist. This isn’t to denigrate games, but to say that it is quite incredible that they are even here in the first place, and that they’ve been used as much for personal expression as entertainment. It also made me realize how much game designers sacrifice to create something that is too often dismissed as merely being a children’s toy.

This also made me realize how precarious a position digital games are in from the standpoint of both history and criticism. Games have gone through considerable changes since the invention of Tennis For Two in 1958 and the idea of writing about or even preserving the history of digital games is something relatively new. I began to think of the nightmare that future historians of the digital game may have to reckon with due to the fact that that gamers do not have the longest memories or the greatest dedication to games history. There is an important conversation about games that is currently happening and I want to be part of it in some way.

I believe in the immersive worlds created through digital games, and as you shall see through the writings in this blog, immersion cannot and should not simply be restricted to those places that offer the best 3D graphics or even the ability to interface with digital worlds via VR headsets like the Oculus Rift — immersive worlds take on many forms and many means of expression. As William Blake writes above “Energy is eternal delight” and I want to reveal what I think is the delightful and challenging energy offered in the still evolving medium of video games.

Edgar Allan Poe once wrote “I have never had a thought that I could not set down in words.” This has not always been the case for myself, but I hope to do better through the words set down here, beginning with this one piece of writing, something that is finally truthful about myself and what I believe in: this simple declaration of faith.

Tennis for Two, the first game with a graphical display, was developed by William Higinbotham in 1958.