Saturday, 3 January 2015

"Let's Play: Ancient Greek Punishment", 2012.


Greetings, all, from the onetime proprietor of the retrogaming blog located at, entitled "Shilling Epilepsy to Mouth-Breathers". On New Year's Eve I realised that my project there was on the cusp of ticking over to 40 thousand views (not bad for 2.75 years on the hobbyist beat, I think), and I hyped the blog up a bit. By the afternoon of January 1st, we'd ticked over and I was ready to celebrate. Only... there were just two problems: the blog's name and its URL.

Initially the blog had been envisioned as a place for me to post game ads I'd scanned from my comic book collection -- I would transcribe them for Mobygames' "Ad Blurbs" archives, but there was no home for the source material to be hosted! Here at last was such a home! (Also, a good place for such "subjective" remarks regarding the ads as I couldn't resist cracking, with no place in such a serious research project as MG.) It stayed on track for, well, a year, at which point I began spicing it up with posts exploring ads for non-video-game products found in comics, video games found in non-comics sources, depictions of comic book characters playing video games or interacting in video game arcades, book reviews, photodocumentation of extensive game troves repatriated from thrift stores and garage sales, and reports from my biannual retro gaming parties. By the end of 2014 the most frequent and popular series on the blog was galleries of video game characters rendered in ANSI art from back in the BBS days. All these digressions, while related, fell well beyond the mandate of "video game comic ads". (And the epilepsy bit, while intended to dismiss the whole hobby as a preoccupation with pretty (and dangerous, for Japanese Pokemon fans) flashing lights, was found to be problematic by some of the occasional seizure-sufferers in my life.)

So it was time for a change. I put on my thinking cap and, well, came up dry. Then I shook down my social media brain trust:

Hivemind thesaurus crowdsourcing: a cause has an effect. Splashes have ripples. What are words for the effects, the results, the yields of disasters? Shipwrecks have ... flotsam. Is there a technical term for the particular state of disarray following a tornado, or a flood, an earthquake, a nuclear meltdown? (Looking to rename my gaming blog: the idea is that something big happens, then there are lots of strange traces of its passage left in the wake. Imagine a tidal wave deposits a boat on top of a house, where it lingers on for years afterwards, out of place. I am that house, and video games are that boat.)
We ended up with a lot of grim and gritty words, but none that I could easily (and Google-uniquely) invoke in a punchy, game-related way.
Disaster Area
Wrack and Ruin
And of course "Games of Future Past". Finally I asked myself, "Isn't there a word for a site like Pompeii, where a horrible disaster befalls a place, then it is widely known as somewhere an ancient culture has been preserved, yielding artefacts for modern people to study and glean wisdom from?" Well, yes: there is a word for a site like Pompeii: that would be, "Pompeii." And so here we are. The Classics theme will very soon be thrown under the bus, but as I was nutso for Ancient Greece and Rome in my school days, I thought it would make for a nice background theme for the blog -- and a nice theme for its first post. (See up there at the top? Altered Beast? Ancient Greece!)

The change we got was somewhat more drastic than the change I intended to implement: first I just took the existing blog, what with its track record of 40 thousand views (a bogus record in reality, only tabulating pilferings of my scans by people who never read a word I wrote!), went into the Blogger settings and issued it the new name and URL. This had the regrettable effect of wiping nearly three years of such rare comments as the blog had been able to accrue. Then I found that none of my hardcoded internal links worked anymore, all still retaining the original site URL. In frustration, in hopes to salvage some vestige of the old site, I put it back the way it had been. Then I thought to myself, "Maybe I should start up the successor site on Tumblr? That's where all the kids are these days." This explains the promenade of animated .GIFs you have awaiting yourself. (Unpaid endorsement: Instagiffer appears to deliver the goods far better than any free website will.) I couldn't bring myself to forego the nice stats and traffic tools Google provide with Blogger, so here we are, same stuff, different pile, with more inclusive names better suiting the kinds of material I'll be sharing here. Such handful of actual video game ads genuinely from comics as I do find myself compelled to blog will still probably end up at the old location, but considering that my most recent posting of one of those was last May, we can consider that blog's growth and expansion basically concluded.)

You may have noticed that none of this has anything to do with the title of this post. I figured, in the spirit of the blog's nominal invocation of Pompeii, that I ought to kick things off with a look at some piece of Greco-Roman video gamery. Well, here is one of my favourites. Unbeknownst to me, it was first released three years ago to the day, so that's basically a sign that my reporting on it here was destined to be, and that failing to do so would defy the will of the Gods themselves. I'm very pleased of the description of the game I put up at MobyGames, so against the boilerplate terms of their user agreement, I'm going to quote, verbatim, the blurb I contributed there:

Don't Look Back is the exception rather than the rule -- as the God of War series so clearly indicates, Ancient Greeks could struggle against the hand that the Fates have cruelly dealt them, but to no avail. No amount of sweat, tears, or (in that case) blood will see you through to a happy ending. And nowhere is the futility of defying the gods spelled out more plainly than here, in a collection of mini-games inspired by Epyx's Summer Games line of computing antiquity, itself inspired by an ancient Greek sporting competition. In this game, the player gets to select one of numerous tragic antiheroes of Greek mythology (plus one bonus philosopher), folks who dared to defy the Gods of Olympus and were consigned in the afterlife to suffer a cruel and ironic punishment into perpetuity.

For instance, one of our options is to play the punishment of Sisyphus, forced eternally to push an enormous boulder up a slippery slope in Tartarus. By hitting keyboard keys at the right tempo, the player can get the rock rolled up the hill, but nothing can keep it from sliding back down again. Camus' existentialist philosophy used this as a model for a meaningless existence in a Godless world, positing that Sisyphus might enjoy a moment of happiness between losing his burden and shouldering it again. Here, it's all just good, clean fun. All of the mini-games are un-winnable, but the game will kindly track failed attempts.

The game is not especially playable as a game; rather, it is five somewhat unfunny jokes, but ones demanding a modicum of user interaction before giving up their punchlines. SPOILER ALERT: here come the punchlines, no interaction needed. (I know, it's as bad as posting a transcript of the "Modernism" text adventure game. Actually, I'll make that my next post, here. Statute of limitations is up -- it's been... what?! 21 years?! Oh, I have wasted my life!)
Sisyphus' torments have already been described above; despite bringing on his doom by irritating the Gods with loopholes and technicalities (all right then, try to use your social engineering on this round rock!), he is regardless viewed as perhaps the cleverest character in the Greek mythological canon (though Odysseus could certainly go a few rounds with him), and there are accounts of his escaping that tightest lockup, the afterlife, on a few occasions. He figures prominently in ACE Team's brilliantly-presented 2011 game Rock of Ages:

Indeed, a few seconds in, we observe our next two subjects, Tantalus and Prometheus, being subjected to their torments. That was a cut scene: now you get to play all the excitement for yourself!

Tantalus' crimes were truly horrifying, consigned to eternal torments down below for the egregious offence of serving his own son Pelops to the Gods as the main course at a banquet. Ironically, he is left parched and starved, surrounded by food and drink that moves just a little too far away when reached for.
Prometheus gets it rough even by Greek mythological standards: for defying Zeus and delivering the Gods' fire to mankind, this immortal is strapped down to a rock to have his regenerating liver eaten by an eagle into perpetuity -- for it keeps growing back. Doesn't mean it ever stops hurting. Clearly grist for a good gag!
The Danaids: instructed by their father to marry, then murder, fifty grooms who courted them, typically their afterlife is framed as needing to fill a tub in which to wash away their sins by passing a full colander along a bucket brigade. This streamlines the story somewhat (staying in line with a Waterhouse painting on the subject) but retains its most important element: irony.
And in the "historical characters" department, Zeno here demonstrates the most well-known of his paradoxes. (A second, his proof that an arrow does not move, might have been suited for this weird collection of Summer Games as well, but it was probably full enough.)

The author of this suite of punishments is one Pippin Barr, and he is one of my favourite game designers. You can play it and check out his other games over here; you can see him further engaging themes of eg. Gods and philosophy with GuruQuest, Let There Be Smite!, and Trolley Problem, all in an engaging AGI-era Sierra aesthetic.

OK, that should do for a first post. Thanks for joining me here at our new location and I hope I get to turn you on to some neat stuff down the line. Cheers!