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Digital Cirque
by Matthew Peckham

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Ratings are based on a five star system, thus:
1 star Worse than enduring Pokemon The Movie, these games deserve nothing more than to be used as fuel for your backyard compost heap.
2 stars Only recommended to hardcore fans of the idiom, these range from bad ideas with a few redeeming qualities, to respectable ideas with critical flaws.
3 stars Average games that provide a reliable cookie-cutter experience. These titles rarely break the mold, settling for status quo, or offering slightly innovative gameplay marred by bugs or interface issues.
4 stars Good games that offer evolutionary gameplay or enhance an established paradigm.
5 stars Revolutionary games that rise to the occasion of digital art.
Welcome to SF Site's spanking new electronic entertainment column. Don't bother grabbing a chair, and I promise I'll be brief -- this once, anyway.

What, you are probably asking, in the heck, is a video game column doing here, of all places? Didn't you pay your waste disposal tab this month?

Let me share a little story with you. Time travel back to spring 1996. I'm one year out of college, managing a cramped software dive with green Formica counters and purple carpeting. (Hey, it made people look, which I suppose was the point.) The game industry in 1996 was humming, and polygonal mip-mapped-alpha-blended 3D was the big buzz. The Sony Playstation was the hot ticket console, Nintendo's next-generation "Project Reality" was lurking on the horizon, and the world was enthralled with games like id Software's infamous Quake, Rare's Donkey Kong Country, and Eidos' anatomically hyperbolic Tomb Raider.

My company had a policy that encouraged employees to "check out" store merchandise for a few nights at a time, in order to buff up product knowledge. So I did, plowing through software like Lewis' Edmund pigging out on Turkish Delight. A lot of it was junk, a montage of senseless "eye candy" designed to stimulate the adrenal glands and drop something like a comfortably numb Baudrillardian gauze over the greedy gray matter. All was right with the world, said these games, because only in your television do squat little Italian guys dress in plumber's outfits and butt-stomp mushrooms for kicks, coins, and ditzy princesses. Plotting, when it was bothered with at all, was so vacuous that calling it clichéd would be kind.

The Dark Eye One title stood out, however. It was called The Dark Eye, developed by a company called Inscape, and it paired a collection of Edgar Allan Poe short stories with the spoken narrative talents of William S. Burroughs.

That's right, the Williams S. Burroughs.

Melding phrenology, outlandish Froudian dolls animated by Doug Beswick (Beetlejuice, Aliens), dissonant Schoenbergian music and sound effects by Thomas Dolby, and Burroughs' own funky meandering recitatives, the game was surprising, bewildering, stunning -- not because the content was especially risqué or violent, but because this was an interactive experience that was also, somehow, approaching the level of art.

Sure, the game wasn't perfect. It had a confusing interface, and occasionally drove its symbolic links into obliqueness. But there was a point where, assuming the role of Montresor and moving about Fortunato's party in a sea of costumes and masks, you were caught in a phrenological sequence that allowed you to become Fortunato, suddenly seeing the world through Fortunato's eyes, listening to his thoughts, interacting with his socialite acquaintances. As the story played out, the game shuttled you back and forth between the two, until at the end, you became both the burier, and the buried. Jonathan Carroll or Karen Joy Fowler it wasn't, but what it suggested -- what it teased -- was a fresh interactive universe of artistic possibilities.

It was a switch from fighting barrel-throwing monkeys or shooting platoons of space invaders, anyway.

My point? Don't expect Gene Wolfe or Ursula K. Le Guin to suddenly appear transformed but somehow philosophically intact on your Xbox, Gameboy, or computer rig anytime soon. Some of you may recall what happened to Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" and Arthur C. Clarke's Rama after the game industry got their hooks in. It wasn't pretty.

But if, like me, you're interested in seeing the industry live up to its potential, I've got more than just a little real estate in Atlantis to sell you. Check back here each month for reviews of the latest trendsetters, where we'll take an unflinching look at what makes today's video games succeed or fail -- and maybe even make a recommendation or two.

Copyright © 2003 Matthew Peckham

Matt Peckham lives in Nebraska and Iowa. His first book, a guide to Mike's Carey's Lucifer, will be published by Wildside Press. For more about Matt, check out

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