Expression evolves alongside technology, and while the surrealist artists worked largely with oil painting, sculpture and photography, audience interaction was largely interpretive, and inherently reactive. To express what was hidden in the unconscious imagination was the job of the creator, not the viewer. However, in video games developers decide the boundaries of what can happen, whilst players decide what actually happens. Some games tend to favour a linear experience with clear goals, however, John Clowder, creator of the surreal Middens and Gingiva, clearly didn’t get the memo, using his games as a vehicle for an atmospheric, bizarre, and often unpredictable experience.
Middens is the more open ended and earlier game of the two, and surrealism pervades every aspect of its construction. It is more overtly sinister than Gingiva. Dreams are a common and recurring element, with hints that the entire game is set as a lucid dream. Narrative is driven by the musings of a talkative revolver, which states that it “symbolises your ID”, in the Freudian sense. As you walk around the maps, exploring ‘The Rift’, the revolver continually poses violent questions, suggesting you should give the environment “a bloodbath”. Later on, it begins to raise more malicious doubts. I found the revolver’s discussions to be an interesting interlude to map-trawling, however, I wasn’t sure if I always understood what it said, as it talked in an extremely roundabout and philosophical way. This didn’t end up being a big deal though, since much of the game was about interpreting what was going on.
More interesting were the NPCs, most of whom were non-violent when approached. There was never any context for what they said, and to me finding and reading the dialogue was the most interesting aspect of the game. Many characters spoke in snippets; fragments that seemed to be lifted out of context. Later, I found out that this really was the case. John Clowder had taken quotes from celebrities, advertising, and death row inmates’ last words, and inserted them directly into the game, which explains its extreme eclecticism.
The game’s pastiche style lends itself well to exploration as The Rift itself is a convergence of several dying worlds. Furthermore, there are so many maps that it’s possible to play through the entire game several times and discover new areas in every playthrough. When you discover a new one, it feels like uncovering a secret.
Music and combat in Middens were slightly underwhelming to me, considering how polished and expansive everything else in the game was. The ambience and mood of The Rift was well conveyed by the music, but there weren’t many memorable tracks. If anything, the strength of the tracks lay in how quickly they changed between maps, and the diversity of their samples. Combat was standard and formulaic – if you’ve played an RPG Maker game before, then you’ll get exactly what you expect. Occasionally when an enemy is dying, the game will try to unnerve you to encourage you to flee. Phrases like *The target creature is bleeding copiously.* will appear without warning. I found this an unnerving addition to an otherwise plain aspect of the game.
Middens won’t please everyone. It plays like a tape reel of the subconscious, and much like a profound dream, once it’s over, you’ll wish you could experience it all over again.
In an interview with the blog Anatomie der Form, John Clowder sheds light on his work, process, inspirations and future aspirations in great detail. When asked about why he uses the medium of video games, when he teaches, writes and illustrates, his response is that he believes fine art is “out of touch” and “gaming is where the battle is and where the boundaries are being pushed”. He elaborates that:
Perhaps in the future what is fake will pull so close to the real as to be indistinguishable. In the end what will make something genuine? Technology will create a mirror of perfect likeness to life one day… When we’re shown a simulation to match in pitch detail our waking state I expect we’ll have to redress some of our takes on the universe. I am eagerly awaiting reality’s identity crisis. It’ll be like a newly aware infant recognizing their reflection for the first time.
Instead of the waking state, John Clowder has given primacy to the subconscious and its inherently fascinating symbolism. I eagerly anticipate his next project, Where they Cremate the Roadkill, and I hope that in the spirit of substantial innovation, it proves to be just as groundbreaking as its predecessors. Surrealism is alive and well, in the form of Middens and Gingiva.”
Words by William Huang