Middens, or What If Chara Were a Gun

Middens is a freeware RPGMaker game that can be found here. If you like Yume Nikki and collage art, you’ll probably like it, so go get it now. I’ll wait.

Alright, so, the basic premise is that you play as Nomad Vagabond, a nameless figure in anachronistic mismatched clothes traveling the rift. The rift is the inside of the universe that wants to be outside and so consumes worlds one by one to make them all part of itself, resulting in the surroundings being rather surreal and varied.

At the beginning of the game you’re approached by Talkative Revolver…

Middens1

…who proposes a deal: it will be your conscience and your id, helping you on your way by shooting everything you have a mind to shoot. It’s very eager about this proposal:

The rift needs a cleansing but it cannot cleanse itself by its own will alone. Let’s give it a bath. A blood bath. That, I think, would surely benefit us all. When you’ve scrubbed it right and good we can have ourselves another chat. I’m all about these chats, you see. Catch you then, partner. 

The game gives you three chances to refuse the proposal, doing which takes you to the main menu. If you accept Talkative Revolver as your partner, the game proper can start and, after a brief tutorial familiarizing you with the game basics like save points…

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This guy is the save point

…and fights, you’re left free to wander the alien landscapes of the rift.

As I’ve said before, the rift is quite a surreal and varied place. There are deserts and factories and highways and luminescent areas that can’t be described easily and a man’s head:

Middens3

The collage art is suited well to reflect rift’s nature. The rift itself is composed of fragments of broken worlds, with its denizens being refugees of thousands apocalypses, so illustrating it by literally using combining fragments of other pictures into a semi-coherent whole was a nice choice. If you like the art, you can spend hours just walking around and observing neverending wonders of this land:

This is Love Bus. It runs on dreams and jazz music. And love.

The malleable and everchanging nature of the rift is also reflected in your ability to play guitar. Doing so allows you to control the environment, forcing the rift to reveal more of its secrets to you. Unfortunately, it’s used only to remove rather obvious barriers and summon an enemy in one or two locations, making it more of a footnote than a key feature it should have been.

You can also talk with various denizens you find in the rift. Most of them would say something short and, as you may guess, surreal:

 

This is one of the dream walkers. They give you quests. Most other people around don't have portraits.
This is one of the dream walkers. They give you quests. Most other people around don’t have portraits.

Talkative Revolver chimes in from time to time as well (usually when you reach a certain location), justifying its name, and either asks you a question…

I’m afraid I have one of those bothersome personal questions to ask you…and I’m confident I wont unload one more bullet until I’ve gotten an answer

[Shoot]

Imagine if you will, that you have in your kitchen cupboard everyone in the world. Each individual is tightly secured in an empty peanut butter container perforated with breathing holes… …and furnished with fresh grass and twigs from your lawn. In another cupboard you have the world itself housed in a glass diorama no less shabby than the solar system itself. As anything the world must be fed regularly to survive. However, the world only accepts the lives of people as subsistence  Any individual dropped in the world’s cage will be devoured even as a mouse would be by a python. So big is the world that many don’t even realize that they’ve been eaten. Still, they are digested, slowly, horribly, and certainly. Among your collection of lives you must routinely select a tribute. From what class of person will you demand a sacrifice.

…or delivering a bit of exposition about itself or the setting:

Snapping someone’s neck… Why, it’s just like turning a door knob. Sorry? You didn’t ask. Excuse my gushing. I’ve been alone for soo long…I suppose I’ve entered the habit of talking to myself. myself….myself…myself <_< >_> Prior to our meeting I had nothing to do with any of my time here but whistle the old patriotic anthems. Biding my time just waiting to get back to the glory days. Or do I mean gorey days? Glory days, gorey days. No matter. Those days are back again. …. Here, here, I’ll tell you a secret to reward your listening ear. Any bullet that I unload that first doesn’t kill its target. That bullet contains a tiny egg. My offspring. One day soon it’ll hatch and out will pop a sparkling new magnum. That fresh offspring, my child, it’ll garner itself a “friend” and they’ll become steadfast partners. It’ll serve destruction on their behalf. Spreading its seed with each passing shot. and that’s the life cycle of us creatures. Kiss kiss. <3

(As you can see here, it also loves using emoticons.)

Of course, just walking around and talking is not the only thing you can do in the game. The other one would be killing.

Some enemies attack you automatically, but they’re rare and far between. Most fights are initiated by you, as a part of game’s message.

It’s impossible to gauge enemy’s strength beforehand, so it’s easy to run into someone who would utterly destroy you at first, though after gaining ten or so levels it’s possible to defeat pretty much anything (poison is a great effect as it delivers damage in percentages of the max health of the enemy). Some of such enemies even attack you automatically, though they’re quite rare. Two or three, I think. One of them is Hell’s Maw. It’s adorable:

Who’s the little abomination against all that’s holy? You are. Yes, you are.

Unfortunately, the fights are not done as well as the rest of the game. Oh, there clearly were attempts at making them unique and interesting. Enemies often waste their turns pleading for their lives, and some may even escape (though I think only cats at the beginning actually do it). Talkative Revolver often gives you helpful advices during the battle like, “Don’t hurt them. Kill them.” You don’t have a party, but you can summon three chakra manifestations: Om, Yam and Lam, who would fight alongside you and have varied skills allowing them to fill different combat roles (healer, status effects master and tank). Status effects take form of ghostly birds floating above your and enemies’ sprites, their form reflecting the nature of the effect.

However, for all of this, the battles remain a dull repetition of using your stronger attacks at opponents until they die common to RPGMaker games. The summoning mechanic is actually actively detrimental to fun since chakra are always summoned at full health and mana, and you can resummon them for as long as you yourself have enough mana (you can actually summon them when they’re still alive to heal them completely). As a result, other skills of Nomad see little use. It’s just more efficient to spam summonings and let them deal with the enemies, while Nomad uses the basic attack.

At least obligatory fights are rare, and the rest can be initiated when you feel like it. Silver linings.

At the end of a fight, along with exp and maybe some items, you get nothing. Collecting enough nothings is necessary to activate the ending sequence of the game, which is done by committing suicide.

Afterwards, you’re transported to a new area, which may be an afterlife or a representation of your psyche or something else entirely. Here, you fight a number of enemies (all attack you on sight) representing various evils: thoughts that drive every serial killer, endless hunger, death.

In the end, you meet your best friend, Talkative Revolver, who delivers the following speech:

I have a question for you. Do you believe in gun control? Who would take gun control over population control anyway. Population control is quality control.

As it happens, Everybody’s got to die sometime, friend. It’s just one of those irrefutable facts of life. No one is innocent so Karma doesn’t care who it kills. It strikes out randomly assured it destroys a sinner. I’ve learned to think like Karma. I can read Karma’s thoughts. It directs me and I am the tool of it’s trigger finger. We’re partners. Friends. Bed Fellows. I am its angel, and it is my God.We’ve recycled many lives together. Wasted lives living in a wasted land. This place was a landfill of lost souls. We’ve done a good thing in liberating it. You too have been recycled. You served your purpose and thereafter became a wasted thing. Karma has spared you the boredoom of your future. Thank Karma. Karma be praised. Hare Karma. Hail Karma. Holy Karma. Terrible Karma.

……..You know what you remind me of? The first person I ever shot. A cashier. They ran the register at a mart vending valueless product. Seeing me pulled on them, they were certainly stunned. I will never forget the look on their face. At first I took them to be afraid. But the inner prism of their iris inlet to a deeper truth. Their ineffable and permanent boredom with their existence. Is that how you feel? Bored. Is that why you play games?I am never bored, because my work is never done. Karma is never satisfied, and justice must be served; To the bored things, and to the useless eaters.

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A million sorrys, but Karma has selected you to die. A billion apologies, but this is the end of our contract. A trillion condolences, but the credits will soon roll, but you won’t live to see them. … But…first…I have a bothersome question to ask.
[Shoot]
Any last words?

And then, of course, you proceed to have the final fight (amusingly, you can still shoot, even though you don’t have a revolver anymore. Nomad’s sprite just makes these pathetic shooting motions with hands that hold nothing. Somehow, it works.)

Between that and the structure of battles, the message of the game is pretty clear and simple: violence breeds more violence, the standard RPG routine of going around murdering random mooks is wrong, and you were nothing but a serial killer disrupting otherwise peaceful world and then killing yourself for no other reason than boredom and a promise of fun on the other side.

It’s fairly similar to OFF, though I found Middens more coherent and focused since it didn’t try to jam three stories into one.

It’s not a bad message. Certainly, recently there was a lot of talks about the underlying assumptions of RPGs and what morality they unwittingly provoke. However, there are factors undermining the message:

  • it’s possible to do a technical pacifist run where you only kill enemies who attacked you first. I understand that the point here is that all murder is wrong, and it was still your choice to play the game to begin with, but compare it to Undertale (let’s face it: Undertale will consume all gaming discussions eventually), which provides a viable alternative to wanton slaughter. By contrast, in Middens you not only can’t spare the enemies, you can’t even run from them as they don’t disappear from the map and would just immediately attack you again. Logic aside, emotionally you feel in the right killing them, which is really something that should be avoided in this kind of game;
  • for some bizarre and unfathomable reason, killing more people actually gets you a better ending. If you enter the ending sequence with about 30 nothings, you just die after the final fight. But if you have 70+ nothings, you get Second Chance item, and the final scene shows Nomad at the starting location, whistling happily (the same song Nomad whistles after killing enemies). That’s a really major blow against the pacifist message, and I have no fucking clue why it is this way. I get the mechanical reason: collecting 70 nothings takes more effort, and the ending sequence enemies become stronger, so rewarding the player for investment makes sense, but come fucking on.

I think that’s it as far as game content is concerned. In addition, it should be noted that there are some nasty bugs missed in the final version: some people don’t die when they’re killed, forcing you into a second fight. Some die after the second fight, like the train of the dead:

Others, however, just respawn endlessly, forcing you into an endless series of battles you can’t win.

Fortunately, all enemies falling into the second category can be avoided, but it’s still a nasty surprise.

Another bug makes it impossible to access the menu once you entered a certain location. It goes away on its own eventually, once you enter some other location, but still annoying.

So, overall, I must say I love this game, warts and all. It’s by no means ideal: there are bugs, the battles are pretty repetitive, and the message is marred by weird decisions. But I think its merits: great collage art, surreal atmosphere, funny and unnerving dialogue, cool setting concept and creepyawesome Talkative Revolver – outweigh it all.

Plus, hey, it has gun porn:

7 Comments

  1. Zephyr says:
    I tried playing this a while back after seeing the text snippets and screenshots you’d posted here and there, since the overall style seemed really intriguing. And the first 5-10 minutes of walking through the desert and speaking with the Talkative Revolver were great.

    But past that, I just got incredibly lost. If there was a map function, I couldn’t find it, I couldn’t work out any sort of logic to how areas connected, and doorways were frequently invisible against the general chaos of each map. I get that that’s part of the style and it’s part of the setting, but it felt like the author amped up the surrealism to the detriment of game playability.

    On top of that, I had no idea where I was supposed to be going and I couldn’t tell the difference between NPCs I could talk to and enemies that would attack me if I touched them (I was trying to do a pacifist run, so there was also the battle issues you mentioned), so I ended wandering around and getting increasingly frustrated because I couldn’t find what I was supposed to be doing.

    I’m disappointed that I couldn’t get further, because the game seems to have some intriguing stuff to it, but there were just too many problems for me to finish it. Sorry :/

    1. illhousen says:

      Well, I understand your issues. There isn’t any map function, though eventually I’ve just learned where everything is (I would say though that it isn’t a problem. It doesn’t matter much that you’re lost, the point is to wander around and not look back). Enemies can be hard to tell apart from normal NPCs, but there are, like, three types of enemies that attack you, so trial and error took care of it as well. And you aren’t really supposed to go anywhere, you’re just supposed to kill enough people to activate the ending sequence, which I guess wasn’t perfectly clear, since Revolver’s dialogue could be mistaken for a purely flavor thing rather than instructions.

      But yes, I can see this game frustrating some people for reasons you’ve outlined, so dropping the game is understandable.

      1. Except the game encourages you to remember and return to previous locations through the quest NPCs. That’s the only way to interact with the world aside from killing everything, yet it’s virtually impossible to do because you can’t tell how any of the areas connect or how to return to a quest giver once you finally figure out what they were asking for. There’s also no rhyme or reason to the quests, since most of them require death items but give you no idea who you need to kill to get them.

  2. I tried playing this but just found it really incoherent. It very obviously wasn’t written by a native English speaker, so its attempts at this profound prose just fell really flat because I couldn’t understand what it was going for. Just, what is Genie even babbling about in that final speech? It sounds really profound but like, karma? What does any of this have to do with karma? It also just… doesn’t go anywhere. I’m not really a fan of these “complicity simulators” because they feel dishonest: they purposefully limit you to a single way of interacting with the world, and then they blame you for taking it. That’s not a profound message. The creator is purposefully crafting an obviously artificial world so flattened it loses the ability to have any meaningful relation to real life. Yes, I killed things because I was bored, but only because you didn’t give me any other option to alleviate my boredom. Like you said, Undertale does this better because it gives you other options, and that makes murder a real choice. It doesn’t help that the enemies have no personality in this. Only a rare few actually talk, most of them are effectively just scenery. Of course I don’t feel bad about killing incomprehensible creatures that appear totally vegetative. The whole thing feels really empty, like the author had one profound idea but didn’t realize how to make a video game that used it properly.

    And yes, the gameplay is awful. The “you’re enjoying this aren’t you” card doesn’t work when you’re not actually enjoying it.

    1. illhousen says:

      Oh, I know that the game is deeply flawed. It’s just one of those cases where I don’t care. It clicks with me, and I enjoy it to the point that its objective quality becomes irrelevant. I guess that’s why it took me so long to actually get this review written as I needed to get some distance from the game to actually talk about it, and even now I probably regard flaws as much lesser than they would appear to other people.

  3. >.> says:
    why would you bother to equate Genie with Chara?  or this game with Undertale?
    1. illhousen says:

      Because why not? Undertale is better made and is much more thematically coherent, that I don’t deny, but the two games take the same approach to examining standard RPG assumptions and arrive at similar conclusions, so comparing them is interesting.

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