Your life is going to be terrible: two experimental games explore being a baby, escaping OZ
No Place Like Home
Human life is a screwy thing, or at least it is if you’re playing “My Dysfunctional Days,” a series of short games by European indie studio Manivelle. The games are short and experimental; they won’t appeal to your inner achievement hound or level completionist. They will however, tell you stories in a way quite different from what is conventionally expected, which is refreshing.
The first game in the series, Eye of the Babeholder, was created during the Molyjam 2012 event. Its premise was inspired by a tweet from the parody Peter Molydeux account that asked readers to imagine they were a baby, and studying facial expressions of your mother and father led to success.
Manivelle took the idea and ran with it, creating a simple twist on “Simon Says” where you, as a baby, perform actions by tapping the corresponding button in response to your parents’ facial contortions. You drink milk to give yourself energy and try to please your parents. The correct response is met with an increase in love, notified by a heart, while incorrect responses can cause your parents to become angry, forcing you to restart the level.
It’s all presented in a strange visual style where each parents’ eyes and mouth are a mis-match, like they’ve been clipped out of a magazine and pasted onto their hollow, empty faces. Once you complete a “level,” you’re rewarded with knowledge. It starts off simple: “I’m a boy, but Mom wanted a girl.” Not encouraging, but still kind of funny in a dark way. The messages continue to spiral into despair.
“My parents are getting divorced and it’s all my fault,” it tells you. Your parents start wearing gas masks. “If my parents had known what was going to happen, they wouldn’t have had a baby.” Your parents take off the gas masks, and their facial features literally fall off their face. At the end, you’re given stats.
“You’re a cute 10 months old baby with a self-esteem of 91%. You used 7 feeding bottles and took 3 naps. You understood your dad better, and your favorite way of communicating is throwing your toys,” the game told me. “Good luck with the rest of your life!” Gee, thanks. Yeah, I feel a lot better.
The game is jarring, strange, and off-putting with its dark twist and minimal approach to storytelling, but the controls and game play are solid. You need to memorize what your parents look like when they expect or see actions from you, and you need to experiment to figure out what reaction goes with what action. You’re never punished for messing up; the game never sets you back, and there’s no health bar or points. The worst you could do is upset your parents or tire yourself out from trying to please your parents, and you try again after taking a nap.
(The lack of) a mother’s love
All in all, it feels like an experience you’d expect in a modern art museum, not a game shelf. I struggled through twice, getting frustrated when I thought for sure I knew what my parents wanted, only to have forgotten what button went with what facial expressions. “Why don’t you love me?” I asked of my in-game mother in a melodramatic tone. “All I want is you to love me!” I laughed at the time, but looking back it’s hard not to see that Manivelle is trying to say something with its game play in Eye of the Babeholder.
No matter how “good” you do, things always go downhill. Awful “knowledge” taints the baby’s life, and it could be the parents are neglectful - perhaps the gas masks and fumes aren’t literal, but are a way to show the baby is wallowing in its own filth and the parents would rather put up barriers than take care of their child. It’s not clear what the game is trying to say, but you can feel that it is saying something. In fact, the “something” could be different for everyone. Sachka Duval, a member of Manivelle, told the Penny Arcade Report it was up to the player to choose what resonated with them.
“The gas masks are actually part of the slight changes that occur during the game: the setting becomes darker, the love gauge breaks, the parents feel less and less human… That reflects the baby’s anxiety, and how their relationship is falling apart. But that could also be seen as the mess the baby is making; or a metaphor for the baby’s guilt for not understanding the parents,” she said.
I asked Duval if the concept was too weird for most players to grasp. ” It’s not that the games were weird, but they were just not smooth enough for a wide audience. For instance, I’m obviously someone who is not comfortable with the ideas of home, family, and childhood, and it certainly shows in these games. That’s something the game industry does not necessarily want because it scares customers off. Only indies take the risk to make the player uncomfortable, like Minority with their wonderful game Papo & Yo.”
This is the great thing about experimental games like this; they’re willing to make the player uncomfortable, even risking dissatisfaction. The “My Dysfunctional Days” series may not be “games” in the traditional sense, but they make you wonder, make you think, make you want to break the game down and analyze it, understand it.
Manivelle’s newest game in the series, No Place Like Home is set up as a puzzle, where the main character – who seems to have some sort of mental deficiency – is seemingly trapped in a room. The game starts with a view of an old CRT television showing the yellow brick road from The Wizard of Oz. Once you hit start, text appears, reading, “I dreamed about this movie again… Dottie… The trip to Oz… The The requests to the great magician… Tin Man wants feelings… Scarecrow wants a brain… And the Lion wants courage. And Dottie? She only wants to go back home, poor thing. Then the magician finds a way to grant their wishes; and Dottie returns to Kansas. ‘There’s no place like home,’ is there?”
You won’t be able to pull open devices or rotate them in a three-dimensional space as in The Room, but the two games are very similar in their “escape the puzzle room” objective. The Room focused the camera on a physics-defying, magical chest and could be swung around in 3D space, while in No Place Like Home, the rooms are 2D paintings. You move around by tapping arrows at the bottom of the screen, and interact with objects by tapping on them in the environment, which makes it feel like a classic point and click adventure game.
The atmosphere is twisted and foreboding, as the whole room seems to be in decay; wallpaper is peeling, yellowed notes are littered about, faucets leak and drip, and electrical wiring is exposed. The background music is only a handful of notes plucked from what sounds like a guitar from Silent Hill, mixed over a music box occasionally playing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” It’s decidedly creepy.
As with Eye of the Babeholder, the game’s story is in the details and the game play. While many of the objects you acquire are used to solve various puzzles, you’ll also collect pages to a diary that becomes increasingly distressing the further you read. One page reads, “I wonder if children really like that movie. It can be scary sometimes. And it teaches us that magic is scary, and that it’s better to be home. Actually it sucks.”
The game only costs $1, which is about right for the time you’ll spend playing through. The game is short and despite some good brainteasers, there’s nothing that should stump you for too long. The game is more fun the second and third times around, since you can stop worrying about puzzle solutions or an end goal and pause to reflect on everything that’s happening. Again, you may not quite “get” what the game is trying to say, but it’s clear there’s more to it than being “Escape The Room Video Game #312.”
Experimenting with success
Manivelle’s “My Disfunctional Days” series isn’t especially rewarding, lengthy, or challenging. There are no eye-popping graphics, no epic plotlines, no action-packed game play. You will likely have little idea what’s happening in them or why but, as far as experiments in storytelling go, they are fascinating productions. And “experiment” is not a dirty word here. Duval described the games as such.
“We’re putting story and game play on the same level, and trying to provide something that somehow involve the player, emotionally speaking,” she told the Penny Arcade Report. “The experiment is not totally complete because the storytelling continues to rely partly on the good old diary, but it’s a path we’ll continue to explore.”