Image Description: A boy stands in front of a clock tower in a city centre. To the left is a fountain in the shape of a saxophone, with a man in a costume in front, and on the boy’s right is another building with marble columns. A large tree is below the boy, with a fence shaped as a musical stave on the bottom.
By William Huang
Every medium has content that is popular and accessible, as well as content that flaunts the rules and goes against the grain. From high-concept books to arthouse films, there are always going to be people that organise their projects with their own logic, and at times produce things that have a distinct and powerful creative vision, spawning microgenres and cult followings.
In the world of video games, one such microgenre is the surreal exploration game. These are characterised by their surreal and often rough-cut (or pixelated) style, emphasis on exploring a defamiliarised game world, and an aesthetic that’s often unsettling or dark. An early progenitor was a game called LSD Dream Emulator (1998), but the style truly kicked off with Yume Nikki (2004). Both are available to play for free, and countless game developers have taken inspiration from the design and concept of Yume Nikki in particular. In Yume Nikki, you enter the game by going to sleep, and by exploring the various parts of the protagonist’s dreamscapes. There is no combat, no dialogue, and interactions with the environment follow a bizarre dream logic, where after collecting various ‘effects’ which change the appearance of your character, you are able to move through and manipulate more of the elements in the game.
Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass, released in 2018 by Kasey Ozymy, seems at first glance to be very distantly related to the experiments of its pixelated predecessors. It’s a role-playing game with a clear narrative, fluid battle mechanics, and characters that don’t try to talk directly to the player or question their reality. If anything, it initially seems more like a Final Fantasy game than Off (2008) or Yume Nikki. Many games in this artsy subgenre often lack polish, while Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass has plenty to spare.
JATPM takes the best two aspects of Yume Nikki: the ability to transform the main character, and a focus on interacting with the environment. However, instead of using these features for purely immersive purposes, Ozymy adapts them for far more the more accessible functions of combat and finding hidden dungeons.
Image Description: A boy stands in front of a clocktower in a city centre. To the left is a fountain in the shape of a saxophone, with a man in a costume in front, and on the boy’s right is another building with marble columns. A large tree is below the boy, with a fence shaped as a musical stave on the bottom.
Jimmy’s empathy allows him to assume the forms of some monsters he defeats. Each form comes with a unique look, as well as skills and perks for defeating monsters while remaining in the form. Like in Yume Nikki, with each new form there are different ways for interacting with the game’s environment. For example, the Revolting Blob can move through holey surfaces and fall through sewer grates, and the Low-Level Goon can shake things. Because of this, every time I got a new form more layers of complexity were added, so that things never became stale. Older locations could be revisited and if I was observant enough, I could enter special, hidden dungeons, some of which (dubbed ‘Nightmare Zones’) looked and felt totally different to their original locations.
Image Description: A bear is seen in the centre of a basement room, with meat hanging from large hooks around it. There’s a metal bed on the right, with a pile of bones and a skull in the bottom right corner.
That’s another thing about this game: it surprises you. Based on the trailer, I thought the game would transition completely from wonder and lightness to something dark, or even a form of mock-horror. Instead, the game flip flops between several styles and moods. At one point you think you’re on a whimsical journey to get honey for a honey cake, and without any warning the music turns into this horrifying ominous crunch, and you’re following the dismembered entrails of the Buddy Bees. Even so, the initial serotonin-soaked happiness of the intro resurfaces again and again, and before you know it, you’re on another silly adventure with wacky characters.
Another aspect of this game that surprised me was how the characters seemed to develop throughout the story, from being seemingly simple to complex and emotionally involving. All of the family members initially seem to fit archetypes: the nerdy and bookish Andrew, the slacker Lars, the cheerful, bright Helga, and the brawns-for-brain Buck. As the game progresses, the characters become more relatable, and their traits are toyed with (often in hilarious ways). Helga’s nicety is challenged when she is served a plate of blood (she ordered the chocolate tart).
However, my favourite character must be the adorable, headstrong Timothy Mouse. His storyline is remarkable, as he decides to explore the world at the same time as Jimmy, turning up in the most curious places. His dynamic with his family was surprisingly serious and sober, even while it was entertaining. Not one of the characters in this game was badly written, and most of them have interesting narrative arcs.
Image Description: A blonde haired girl, a man with a skull beanie and a bear all gather around a table in a restaurant, with a ghost appearing to be in between them. The girl speaks, saying “Well, if we’re being honest…this isn’t what we ordered. You see, I had the chocolate tart, for instance, but what you’ve given me seems to be just blood. I’m sure it’s a delicacy, but, well, it’s not chocolate.”
At times funny, at times warm and heartfelt, and occasionally terrifying, Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass is a wondrous journey into a world that’s diverse and fascinating. Probably most remarkably, for all the ideas and complexity of the game, Ozymy never loses sight of the point of view of Jimmy, who sees the world unfolding as a wide-eyed 8-year-old. This game is deceptive and multifaceted; seemingly a straightforward RPG but so much more than that. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I think you will too.
All images are sourced from gameplay.