Middens, an Interview

Last month I was introduced to Middens, a game that I have found to be particularly precise in what it wants to be.  An RPGMaker game with typical top-down roleplaying game mechanics, Middens uses the ‘game’ as a platform to reveal itself to be something less easily defined.  The player explores numerous locations as a faceless nomad, and the majority of interactions with the environment are boiled down to “talk” or “shoot”.

You can also play your guitar.

With the enemy art being handled in a collage style, the art direction of the game is center to the package as a whole.  Bits and pieces of art from elsewhere are glued together to form whole creatures with unearthly workings.  Even the setting, the Rift, is clearly stated as being a sort of living canvas strung together by the threads of mindless wormlike lifeforms that chew through it.  It’s stellar.

Zones within the game range from evoking the feel of happening nightlife in the city, desolate landscapes with the serenity of pure nature, or indescribable nightmare neon fever voids.  The denizens of the zones are much the same, though their motives are, like the nomad’s, either to talk to you or try to kill you.  There is a distinct feeling of being somewhere you’re not meant to be.

The game is a densely packed sphere of fractured mythology, Eastern and Western mysticism, and purposefully mismatched art styles.  Even the background music for the Rift’s nooks and crannies might be fittingly solemn and reflective, or jarringly funky.  Your mind might try to find meaning into some of these decisions, or why the game world exists as it does.  I’m fairly certain that it’s the point, in a lot of ways.

I truly don’t think many people would be able to create something as clearly inspired as this without both truly understanding the dozens of discrete ideas they were pulling together, and truly appreciating them.

I was impressed to the point that I decided to ask some questions of John Clowder, the game’s creator, and here’s the results:

1. What in particular prompts the visual design of the Nomad?  For what seems to be a standin main character, he is quite distinct looking.  I know you’ve mentioned Middens arose out of a previously planned project; are there some threads of that here?

Being a vagrant the Nomad was imagined as a sort of gypsy cosmopolitan. However, unlike an earthly nomadic person Middens’ protagonist traverses dimensions as easily as nations. He is not only displaced from a culture but also displaced out of time. His assorted attire is therefore a reflection of his multiculturalism or, on the cynical flipside; orphan hood of home, nation, or era.
Native costume has been a fascination of mine for many years, and the Nomad is a sort of confluence of many ancient world fashions. Mongolian and other wandering plain cultures are in particular referenced in his wardrobe, though his garments are also partially composed of western military uniform.

I relate to the Nomad as a character who is both advantaged in being elevated beyond all restraints of nation law, racial distinctions, and traditional expectations and likewise burdened with a total loss of hereditary identity. Globalization today pivots us on a similar precipice.  As the world shrinks and ease of transportation and communication coax international understanding our individualistic connections to collectivistic concerns are breaking down. Religion, race, societal traditions and even patriotism will inevitably wane as pertinent identifiers as the new globalized paradigm manifests. Religions will become Unitarian, race will be manipulable with medical technology , exclusive traditions will be discarded in favor of inclusive traditions and one world unification will render patriotism obsolete.

The Nomad exists in continuity where this paradigm has already made its upheaval.

2. Some of the locales within “The Rift” are very evocative in their way.  Likewise, as a whole, it has a sort of cosmology that defies much definition.  Are there any particular inspirations or you drew upon for how it all works?

The middle between any two poles is always the point of greatest stress.  A rubber band, for instance, stretched on opposing sides will eventually snap in half. I mention this rudimentary fact because the rift is itself the mean between multiple universes and represents the meeting point between these zones. If the rift pertained to a normative set of rigid physical laws like our world it would easily break trying to accommodate the contradicting forces it channels.

Our skeletal network contains joints as flexible buffers between bone fragments and in this same vein the rift is a flexible joint between stricter spatial regions.
In another aspect the Rift is also alike to the historical ‘Silk Road’ as it interlinks worlds in much the same way that the old world trade route did. The Rift may provide a bartering hot spot for creatures seeking goods or resources, and on the otherhand it may act like international waters—acting as a hospice for creatures seeking refuge from their past crimes.

3. How much of the placement of world objects/dialogue is off-the-cuff, and how much is specifically planned?  Were there any overriding processes to this?

From an early stage I had decided that I wanted to incorporate death poetry and historical quotes into Middens’ dialogue. Much of the game’s script is actually composed of the last words of sentenced serial killers, martyrs or poets who ended their lives. I wanted players to experience the true visceral language of individuals in contact with death. In many instances the last words spoken by creatures killed by the player are infact the final words of real world individuals who were murdered themselves.
In other cases the script is supplemented with examples from my early writing whereas the gun’s speeches were penned to specifically to extrapolate on the nature of the gun and your relationship to it.

4. Do you feel that some of the ‘clunkiness’ of the system aids in telling the specific sort of narrative you want to achieve with Middens?  Examples being the conscious decision to equip the revolver or use the guitar through the menu, rather than accessing them with easy to reach hotkeys.

That Middens contains such issues is a signal that a human faceted it—not a corporation. If I fashion a pot my hand slips, and if I dab paint the paint drips. Imperfection is intrinsic part of pathos of all natural created expressions. In the East there is an aesthetic concept known as Wabi-Sabi which pertains to the beauty and acceptance of imperfect things. It is an idea that arises out of observation of life and its obvious imperfections.

Since my intentions are more expressive than technical such minor conveniences were simply never on my palette of interests or priorities when creating Middens.

5. Do you feel that the game is complete, or that with better tools and resources or more time, there are things you would have liked to have handled differently?

The material by-product of an idea is never quite the same as the idea itself.  In my mind’s eye I can see Middens unfolding entirely differently in an enumerable range of directions. These ideas though, they’re easily made and just as easily parted with. Working with the limitations allotted to me inlet to invaluable ideas and angles I would have never before considered otherwise.

6. Obviously, the concept of collage plays a large role in the game’s look and feel, and (arguably) within the game’s world itself.  Would you like to go into that some more?  You cite Max Ernst as an inspiration; are there any particular works or collections of his you would recommend, or anything more you’d like to say about collage art in general?

Before committing so avidly to collage all my work was etched, but ultimately I came to favor collage. Looking at the public outrage over SOPA and PIPA( draconian copyright legislation in the USA) I feel with some certainty that collage and other remix mediums are at the forefront of current-day political controversy and relevant artistic
discourse.

To me, collage is not just a medium, but a contemporary movement challenging bigoted notions of appropriation and acceptable art. Even more so though, with so much recent legislation essentially aimed at destroying the creative commons, I feel taking part in this argument is an important calling for artists, and whenever I create a collage piece I sense being apart of a larger battle.

John Clowder is currently raising funds through Kickstarter for his next project, Moments of Silence.  It looks to be every bit as solid as Middens.  Middens is still available for free.

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