Monday, July 14, 2014

The Silver Gymnasium: The Video Game

I've been meaning to write this blog for a while. I've been aware of Okkervil River's Silver Gymnasium video game ever since I did that week-long review of the album last year, but I've only just found the time to play through it.

It was rather different to what I expected.

If you don't want to know what happens in The Silver Gymnasium: The Video Game, stop reading now. I'd definitely recommend that you play the game before scrolling down any further.

You play as a bespectacled youth (presumably a young Will Sheff, although the game never tells us his name), and your mission is to find your older sister, who seems to have gone missing.

The game begins as a Pokémon-style RPG thing; you explore your small hometown, talk to your neighbours (one of whom is very excited about the new shopping mall that's currently being constructed), and try to work out where your sister might be. The whole game, incidentally, is soundtracked by 8-bit versions of the songs from The Silver Gymnasium - Down Down the Deep River loses none of its awesomeness when converted into a Game Boy-style beepfest, let me tell you.

Sadly, I can't find the 8-bit version of this song online. Here's the kickass album version instead.

So yeah, the first part of the game is pretty Pallet Town, as it were. The second part is where things start to get weird - your sister, it transpires, has been transported to some kind of Boschesque spirit world, and you have to go there and get her back. This relatively straightforward plot - 2 parts Labyrinth, 1 part Spirited Away - allows Okkervil River to serve up a generous helping of nightmare fuel; my personal highlight was the gigantic bird-man with a drinking problem (I have a slight phobia of large birds, especially large birds with human features), but the evil ghost who makes scary noises when you approach is certainly a close second.

There are also these little dog-goblin things with beards but they're kinda cute.

The actual gameplay is a tad clunky (I often found myself longing for a 'Run' button, or some other means of making that little nerd move faster) and the tasks that you have to complete are standard questy fare (you can't get up the mountain unless the bird-horror carries you, and he won't do that unless you buy him a drink, and you can't do that until you find a gold coin to pay with), but frankly, neither of these issues are massive dealbreakers because The Silver Gymnasium - like the album that shares its name - is one big homage to the '80s. And that's what video games were like in the '80s, I guess.

What I really liked were the game's attempts to play with old video game tropes. For example, you spend the whole game penned in by 'invisible walls', a commonly-criticised feature that still shows up in games made today (people feel that these unseen barriers, which prevent players from exploring anything outside of the path that's marked out for them, compromise the realism of the games that use them).

BUT! At the very end of the Silver Gymnasium game - after you've beaten the final boss - you are told that you must find The Silver Gymnasium, and that to do so, you must follow the path that you've "always wanted to take". It seems cryptic at first, but what you actually have to do is walk through the invisible walls and into the sky. It's a nice nod to the limitations of old-school video games, and a pretty cool moment of fourth wall-breakage.

Here's a more subtle one: at one point in the game, you get teleported to a hellish bizarro version of your small hometown (last seen in the game's first chapter). The aforementioned shopping mall has been built, all the houses have been replaced by trendy condominiums, and everything is awful (because capitalism is BAD). The minor-key version of Down Down the Deep River is cool enough, but I also noticed that all of the doors were locked.

If you've ever played Pokémon or The Legend of Zelda or anything like that, you'll know that most RPG/adventure games allow you to come and go from people's houses as you please. The locked doors in this alternate universe are significant for two reasons:
  1. It tells us instantly that this is a bad neighbourhood - you know how people talk about the good old days, when people left their doors unlocked without fear of getting robbed?
  2. Locked doors are unusual in a game like this, and this is The Silver Gymnasium's very subtle way of telling us that something is very, very wrong.
So there's lots to love about The Silver Gymnasium as a tribute to old video games, but I'm less convinced of its value as a companion to the CD. The (rather heavy-handed) moral of the story - that we should stay young, stay innocent, and fear big business - fits quite nicely with the small-town backdrop against which the album plays out, and obviously they've both got that whole '80s thing going on, but I feel like the Silver Gymnasium itself means something very different in each work.

The album is named after the gym in Will Sheff's old boarding school, and it presumably serves as nothing more than a symbol of childhood, the past, and all that; in the game, the Silver Gymnasium is some kind of heavenly prize that can grant all your wishes and make everything go back to how it was.

I suppose there's some symmetry in the symbolism, but it still feels a little detached from what the album's all about. Still, there are some cool crossovers between game and music - you have to play your sister a record of the song Stay Young to make her remember her old life, and when you finish your quest and return home, you receive a package from Scary Birdman that contains a copy of the album on floppy disc.

For these reasons, I feel that I enjoyed the video game a lot more for already being familiar with the album. It meant that I noticed all the musical cues, understood all the tie-ins, and generally 'got' it all a bit better.

So, to sum up: the game isn't without fault (there are problems with both the gameplay and the underlying story), but on the whole, it was good fun and a really unique way for Okkervil River to promote their album. More bands should do this!

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