Yearly Archives: 1994

Sweeter Than Cake (Gingerbread Man)

'C' is for concept album, that's good enough for me.The Residents have released a followup CD-ROM to Freak Show called Gingerbread Man.  It is in a format called an “expanded album” and it works both in a CD player and a computer.  The two are inseparable; this time around the complete experience has been packaged in a single release instead of being split over several years and formats.

The visuals are gorgeous; unsettling yet inviting.  It is leaps and bounds ahead of their first venture, and it’s hard to believe that what is possible has changed so much in less than a year.  It’s entirely new but perfectly captures the aesthetic of The Residents, and I’d be hard-pressed to find another act that’s been around for twenty years that can be so well represented by this new medium.  It helps that The Residents themselves constantly change, usually through adoption of the latest technologies.

In one sense, Gingerbread Man is even more open-ended than Freak Show.  There are no rooms or passages  to explore, which initially makes it feel limited.  But with Freak Show your interaction is limited to four options: turn left, turn right, move forward, or click on an object.  Here, nearly every key press results in something happening on screen.  The colors change, pictures appear, voices speak, and (most interestingly) the thoughts of each character float into view.  Instead of exploring a world filled with the physical evidence of someone having been there, here we are presented with their innermost thoughts and fears.  We know these people exist not because of what they have left behind, but because of how they think.  It’s psychoanalysis presented as entertainment, which can potentially lead to realms more vast than any “virtual reality” could possibly provide.

That said, the format of each character’s video is the same.  Eventually you get a feel for how the buttons work and fall into a groove.  This is not so much a game as it is a toy that complements the music.  While it is integral to the project, it’s playability decreases significantly the more you use it.  In the long run, it’s really nothing more than a novel presentation of liner notes and jacket photos – something you’ll pore over immediately and only revisit a few times afterwards.  This does not make it a bad thing, but it does mean that as time goes on I’ll more than likely listen to the album in isolation from the presentation.

To be fair, the repetitious format could be a limitation of the computer program, but as far as the music is concerned it must be a deliberate choice.  With the motif of the Gingerbread Man theme being worked into each of the songs, the album feels like a continuation of what the group did with Our Finest Flowers.  For that album, they appropriated musical ideas from throughout their career to feed into new compositions.  Here the concept is limited to this single album, a much more difficult feat to pull off, and at times it does feel like the music suffers from that challenge.  Despite this, some of the melodies are among the finest I’ve heard from The Residents, and they stick in my mind well after the music has stopped.

And furthermore, with the similar structures of the songs and the videos, a statement is being made along the lines of “despite all of our differences, essentially we are built of the same material; we just rearrange and mold it to our particular tastes.”  And by giving us control over the presentation, we come to realize that we can forge our own paths, and that we should be mindful of how we may influence others.

I can see this becoming a series.  Once a year another volume of Gingerbread Man is released (or perhaps “baked” is a better term), giving us insight into another nine personalities.  As a template (“cookie cutter?”) it could go on forever.  Or at least until The Residents get interested in something else and run with that concept.

No Reason Why Technology Cannot Be Called On To Meet This Challenge (Freak Show CD-ROM)

For her birthday, my granddaughter wanted a computer game called Myst.  Sixty dollars is far too much to spend on a game for one’s child, so that’s where Gramps comes in.  We grandparents don’t have the same money troubles that we had as young parents, and our primary function is to spoil the grandchildren.  So Jennifer received a copy of Myst, which I find to be a stunningly beautiful game and is probably worth a good percentage of its cost.  It’s certainly worth it to me to watch the fascinated wonder in her eyes as she explores the strange island.  And I must admit I get sucked into it as well, and enjoy “playing” the game with her, which actually means I watch her navigate through the virtual locations and am only allowed to actively participate when she is stumped by a puzzle.  It’s a fine arrangement we have.

While I was shopping for this game, I found that The Residents have released their own computer title, based on the album Freak Show.  It’s probably not appropriate for an eleven-year-old, but I’m not going to shelter her from any art form, no matter how odd.  And besides, she’s the only one who knows how to work the computer.  My original plan was that she would show me how to run the game so I could play it by myself, but the child’s limitless curiosity got the better of her, and how could I resist sharing this other strange world?  I think she enjoys Myst more (and I don’t blame her – it’s gorgeous to look at), but every time I’ve visited this past month she’s wanted to tell me about a new sideshow attraction she’s learned about.  Myst she wants to show me; Freak Show she wants to tell me about.

Like Myst, Freak Show is less a traditional game and more a world to explore.  Myst obviously has puzzles that must be solved, but even within the narrative of the mysterious island they sometimes feel arbitrary and out of place.  It’s as if the creators felt they couldn’t completely divorce themselves from the traditional concepts of a linear narrative.  The Residents have foregone that model altogether and simply created an open world to navigate.  You are rewarded by clicking everywhere you can.  You do not collect objects, nor do you unlock doors with codes found elsewhere in the game.  There does not appear to be either a winning or losing scenario.  There is no goal other than what you set for yourself.  In that respect it’s much like life itself.

Clearly there is some traditional computer game logic at play, but it is invisible to the player.  Some sections of the sideshow are not accessible until you complete some action (which is never specified).  Or maybe they open up after a certain amount of time has passed.  But there is not a clear puzzle to solve.  When you happen to do the right thing or visit the right place, the game quietly opens up with no fanfare.  This allows the experience to be as close to non-linear as possible while still having a sort of reward system in place.  However non-linear Myst might be at times, when it presents a puzzle a very obvious order of events becomes evident, with a glaring obstruction blocking your way.  The puzzles in Freak Show are hidden from the player, and likely have multiple solutions, rendering them unimportant while still retaining a sense of the cause and effect reward structure that the best games thrive upon.

And I think this medium has got to be a dream come true for The Residents.  Here at last is sound and vision in vast amounts and beyond that it is given an interactive presentation.  More than a movie or an album, the CD-ROM invites revisiting, and may never give the same experience twice.  Something that can’t quite be pinned down, but endlessly fascinates?  It sounds like the zenith of artistic expression to me.