By Michael Eilers
Arizona Daily Wildcat
As an art form, CD-ROM entertainment has
had a slow coming of age, beginning with the
stunning world of MYST and continuing up
to recent "action" games such as Buried In Time and The Daedelus Encounter. In between there has been a lot of "shovelware," pretty pictures stuck on a disc with little or no content by greedy companies wanting to tap into the market.
Now that practically every computer sold has a CD-ROM drive installed, plus adequate sound and graphics capability, the market isn't quite so frantic, and can begin to move away from the "game" orientation toward something a little more expressive. Two new titles from Inscape software do just that.
The Residents' Bad Day on the Midway marks a second trip to the circus for the legendary underground-music enigmas. Easily identified by their huge eyeball masks, the Residents have been making very, very strange music since the late '70s, and have shown a talent for media experiments as well. Their first CD-ROM, entitled Freak Show, was a trip behind the scenes of a carnival collection of misfits and misanthropes.
Bad Day returns to the carny, but this time the cast of characters are the carnival workers themselves, each trying to survive the "bad day" (actually occurring at night) they are all going through. As a floating observer, you must "jump" from one character's point of view to another, experiencing the carnival through a new set of eyes each time. Subtle clues take you from place to place, and certain characters and encounters trigger events that move the story forward, toward some final mystery.
The characters who populate this midway are archetypal caricatures, from the fresh-and-innocent "Timmy" to the bizarre Lottie the Log. A wannabe country singer, an aging stripper named Dagmar, and a psychotic strangler are a few of the characters you get to inhabit. As you travel around in the body of each character, stream-of-consciousness thoughts clutter the bottom of the screen, occasionally providing clues as to where to go next.
While you can be "killed" as you travel through the park, it's not really accurate to call Bad Day a "game" in the traditional sense: the only goal is experiencing all of the plot twists and intrigue of the midway, and the only "end" is survival of that hellish night. There are many locations and "rides" to visit in the park, but only certain characters can enter some locations, so repeated trips are necessary.
As for the park itself, the place is incredibly, oppressively spooky. Master modeler and animator Jim Ludtke created the entire location and characters with crisp 3-D graphics. Those who are used to the sanitized, too-perfect look of most 3-D animation will find the Midway a revelation: Ludtke takes a craftsman's approach to his work, and every scene is impeccably detailed and incredibly sinister. One of the few able to push this new medium past experimentation and toward art, Ludtke's animated characters move and talk like cunningly manipulated puppetsthey seem like humans attached to strings. Excellent, expressive voices and narration add to the interaction.
Moving through the park itself is accomplished by simply clicking and pointing, and the cursor tells you where you can and cannot go. Other characters show up at random, and you can chose whether to switch to their point of view or not. Traveling from place to place involves a series of animated jumps, each ending up at crazy camera angles.
The park itself is also a twisted art gallery of sorts: certain events and "rides" trigger animated sequences that tell a story, often in a series of comic-book vignettes. These mini-masterpieces are worth the cost of the disc alone, each a unique, self-contained work of art by up-and-coming media artists. Several of the sequences reveal the backgrounds of certain characters, and help move the plot forward.
Accompanying all of this is a madcap soundtrack by the Residents themselves, a typical (for them) mix of frantic synthesizer music and eerie, chaotic sound loops. All of the sounds, from the squeak of rats to the roar of the roller coaster, are beautifully produced and crystal-clear.
The Residents' Bad Day on the Midway is hypnotic. As you dig through the filth that is the minds and world of these people, the twisted plot sucks you deeper and deeper. While the park itself is rather small and may reveal most of its secrets the first time you play, the ability to leap from character to character is much like seeing the place through ten different pairs of eyes. I've been playing for about 10 hours total, and have yet to "survive" the experience, so this is one title that will not be finished in a weekend. The randomness of your encounters with the other characters keeps the action very fresh. While the prospect of having to cross MYST island once again made me sigh, moving about the Midway presents constant opportunities for new experiences.
While it demands pretty serious hardware (a 486 PC or 030 Mac with 256 colors, a 13" monitor, and a double-speed CD-ROM drive at minimum, plus 8 or more megabytes of RAM), the game moves quickly, and rarely did I tap my foot impatiently. There were no bugs or crashes the entire time. The only technical disappointment was the lack of an option to play in thousands of colors, which would really have made Ludtke's movies shine.
While most of the CD-ROMs I own rarely leave the shelf, this one will stay right near the player for a long, long timethe freaky world of the Midway intrigues me, and I know there is more to discover. Rather than being a goal with a bunch of puzzles in the way, Bad Day is more of an experience, a 3-D gallery of human depravity, and of the little bits of nobility that shine through even the most decrepit human beings. Leave it to the Residents to re-invent the CD-ROM, just as it was getting stale.
Bad Day On The Midway is available at most computer stores: call 1-800-MY-DEALER to find a store near you. Check out Inscape's web page at http://pathfinder.com/inscape, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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