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.