After “Where is the Citizen Kane of video games?” and “Who is the Roger Ebert of games criticism?”, the third most cliche question to ask about the critical state of games is, “Where is gaming’s Cahiers du Cinema?” The implication of this quandary is that gaming’s smartest thinkers should get together and create a coherent language and theory through which one can discuss games. While I agree it’d be beneficial to see a coherent critical community that was more willing to build on the work of its own members, I also can’t help but think the longing for a united manifesto ignores some of the great, singular work going on in the gaming underbelly. What truly fascinates about the original Cahiers collective is that so many of its luminaries articulated what they thought to be the language and meaning of cinema, then built upon it and experimented with those values in their own work. I’ve barely begun delving into the budding indie games scene — and I’m talking about the truly independent games, made by starving experimentalists programming largely alone — but one thing I’ve already noticed is that most of these fringe critics are also avid game designers. Writers as diverse as Tim Rogers and Anna Anthropy aren’t afraid to put their principles into practice when designing games, and going forward, I’d like to devote time to these works along with more mainstream titles.
To that end, we have Cameron Kunzelman’s Catachresis: A Way Too Scary Game. Kunzelman runs the excellent gaming blog This Cage is Worms, which was once kind enough to link to this very rag. Like the aforementioned Rogers, Kunzelman isn’t shy about engaging with mainstream gaming and remains interested in the AAA market despite his criticisms. But unlike Rogers, who — God love him — found his niche in self-indulgent epics, Kunzelman’s writing is concise and source-heavy. The sometimes academic nature of Kunzelman’s inquiries masks the secret weapon of his online persona: He’s very, very funny. “Year of Luigi” jokes quickly became the game blogger’s version of the Aristocrats routine — everyone had his or her variation — but nobody else, to my knowledge, designed an entire Nintendo Mayan calendar around the non-event.
Humor is the grease that keeps Catachresis‘ gears turning. While the game can be eerie, Kunzelman is more poking fun at how simply guiding the player character to the right can create a sense of unease (with the appropriate music and lighting, of course). Despite being a largely meta exercise, I like that Catachresis still keeps itself afloat as a story (no matter how vague) with characters (no matter how cursory). Kunzelman clearly sees at least a glimmer of hope for games as a narrative medium, and keeps the interactivity basic to draw attention to the crackling dialogue. The writing here is gifted and witty, as smart and self-aware as the best paranormal-themed comic books. (Kunzelman sometimes discusses comics on his blog, and lists Mike Mignola as an influence in Catachresis’ press release, so I imagine this evocation is no accident.) The script’s absurdities and purposeful vagueness make it a perfect fit for the silent video game text box, and it’s refreshing to see a small game that’s as concerned with its prose as it is with its mechanics.
Catachresis’ spartan visuals resonate the most in the last third, as it moves away from the cartoonish and into a Lynchian, surreal (but still funny!) nightmare state. The game begins to branch out and give the player some limited choices in this final stretch, before reaching its apocalyptic conclusion. I enjoyed my time getting there, and the game provides a damning counterpoint to the dare-you-to horror subgenre popularized by the Amnesia games. (Perhaps the best thing to come out of Catachresis is the hilarious teaser trailer, parodying horror game reaction videos.) But my favorite story beats in Catachresis are the ones that most readily reminded me of Kunzelman’s blog. The protagonist’s ignorance of several texts and histories that could save the day immediately made me think of how This Cage is Worm often reads like a rallying cry for more well-read, accountable games writing on the internet. It’s great to see Kunzelman follow through on those principles in his art. Even if Catachresis is a bit slight at times, it feels like a step toward something bigger for him.