There’s a video on Edmund McMillen’s compilation CD, tucked behind layers of random sketches and artwork, of him and his wife sampling Mexican candy, wearing fake moustaches, and reacting to each concoction with shock, disgust or silly jokes. It seems irrelevant on its own, but if you spend enough time wading in the depths of this indie game designer’s mind, you come to understand the deeply personal nature of this moment.
This Is A Cry For Help is a collection of McMillen’s art, comics and — most pertinent to our discussion here — computer games. Dubbed as “10 years of artistic independence,” it is arranged, unceremoniously, on a CD. There’s no fancy splash screen or setup process, just a series of file folders with text files explaining McMillen’s intent at every turn.
But before we get into that, you should know more about the designer. He’s not a programmer — in fact he always relies on a small cadre of coders — but you can spot his ideas from a mile away, their round faced, beady-eyed characters brandishing happy, yet disturbed smiles. He once told UGO.com that his goal is “to never get picked up by a publisher.” The guy thrives on answering to no one, and if you slide down the rabbit hole beyond Gish — his best-known game, winning the Independent Games Festival grand prize in 2005 — it’s easy to understand why.
McMillen has … how do we put it … a gross side. Sometimes it’s a simple display of cartoonish gore in his work, and other times it’s a vulgar presentation of graphic sexual content. In general, though, there’s an obsession with fleshy parts and internal organs that persists through the majority of the CD.
Some of it is barely printable. “The C Word” — which is actually just a nickname for the game’s sexual slang title — features a male reproductive organ circling a female reproductive organ, shooting at it while simultaneously fending off diseases.
Dig deeper into the CD, and you’ll find a handful of games revolving around a fictitious land called Golgotha (see also: the real-life designation for where Jesus was crucified), with each title telling the story of a different species. There’s the Carious Weltling, whose life can only be sustained through constant digestion of parasites; the Cereus Peashy, a predator who kills via Sonic-style platforming; and the Viviparous Dumpling, whose birth is depicted in a “dodge the bad guys” game, and who serves fodder in other titles.
Like “The C Word,” none of these games are particularly complex, and definitely not groundbreaking in terms of game design. That’s why McMillen is clearly the auteur here. I personally never got hooked on any of these arcade offerings, but the sheer lunacy of their artwork and premises make them interesting cultural specimens.
This Is A Cry For Help gets even sicker if you venture a peek at McMillen’s comics and artwork. Here, dead babies are illustrated into various adapted uses, such as umbrellas or worm feeders. Bodily fluids are rendered for comedic effect and for reasons unexplained, one character’s brains are constantly exposed.
On its own, I’d normally deride all of this as cheap gross-out humor. But when you peel back more layers of This is a Cry for Help, you start to get a glimpse of the artist behind these seemingly vile works.
Of late, McMillen has taken an interest in “art games,” whose purpose is to convey a message rather than to explicitly provide “fun.” As I mentioned earlier, his earlier works didn’t keep me up all night playing, but this new trajectory adds purpose, and taken with the sickening stuff of Weltlings and Dumplings, you get a more complete picture of McMillen’s personality.
I first tried Aether when McMillen released it on the Internet a few months back, and at the time didn’t quite know what to make of it. You control a boy and a monster who swing among the clouds to travel from one planet to the next, solving puzzles while encountering happy-looking cartoons who say things like “I wish I was dead.”
McMillen often says that his work is cathartic and uncensored, but that makes Aether hard to understand if you don’t know the artist. After seeing some of the comics McMillen created in high school — and even some of the drawings he made as a 5 year-old — Aether’s cautionary tale about introversion becomes clear. The feeling of childhood isolation on each tiny planet becomes overwhelming.
And, of course, there are the better-known titles. I’m in the minority as someone who doesn’t really like Gish. The platforming action always seemed too imprecise, given that you’re controlling a ball of tar. The inclusion of lost levels — McMillen explained to me that he wasn’t allowed to distribute the full game on his compilation CD — failed to hook me any more than the demo. Blast Miner, a puzzle game where players launch a small sprite by arranging explosives and blocks, seemed interesting, but was also limited to a handful of stages. Moreover, these titles lack the disgusting appeal of McMillen’s earlier works and the deep thought value of his art games.
Most of the compilation is available online for free, begging the question of why you should purchase it. This brings us back to the video of McMillen, his girlfriend and Mexican candy.
With other mediums, such as music and film, there’s a bond you feel with the creator once you’ve experienced enough of their work. For me, listening to Phish is like relaxing with an old friend, and watching Tarantino flicks is like chilling with one of the guys. Games often miss out on that connection, as even the designers are but a small cog in a major wheel. But this experience, of playing McMillen’s games and exploring the minutia of his 10-year artistic legacy, is the exception. I’ve interviewed McMillen on a previous occasion, played his games and read articles about him, but only now has that one-way connection between creator and observer been established.
For $10, that’s something.