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Thecatamites and the Proto-Found-Object Game

BLOOD     One of the primary examples of an alternative game that adopted a found-object approach to some aspects of design and worldbuilding would be the 2010 release Space Funeral by Stephen “Thecatamites” Gillmurphy. When dissecting Gillmurphy’s development philosophy something that becomes evident is their emphasis on constructing a collage-like experience— they describe the engine used to make the game as being a “collage machine,” constructing a world around a set of images that organically generates a concrete form, creating a space imbued with unique energy that generates interest in the player. Another tenant in their approach to design is gameplay serving as distraction, leaving the player in a permanent state of restlessness, able to explore the breadth of the generated space without slipping into the depth, which can risk leaving the player attaching a singular meaning to the experience, falling into a state of mind that no longer engages in examination out of convenience. As Thecatamites says, “the drift of unsettled consciousness” is what breathes life into a collage game. This perspective is what helps to make Gillmurphy’s artwork a good starting point for analyzing how to approach developing a game in the genre of found-object art. The aforementioned Space Funeral helps to contextualize this approach to design, as well as exhibit how the developer chose to implement it.

    At its core, Space Funeral consists of blending selections from other artists into a new contextual environment, brought together with a layer of original artwork and characters to add just enough cohesion for most players to engage with the surreal, Lynchian experience. The engine it’s built in provides the skeleton of gameplay, which for the most part is lifted from tenants of classical RPG mechanics, lightly tweaked by Gillmurphy to provide a slight amount of depth to keep the player engaged— but not enough to hold them mentally captive, instead pushing them to envelop themselves in the experience rather than attempting to settle into a modus operandi. While this may appear to betray a rather utilitarian and easily consumable product, Space Funeral intentionally uses this bare-bones approach to play— as it truly shines in its use of aesthetics to generate a one-of-a-kind experience. Pairing intentionally crude sprite work evocative of art brut compositions with woozy acoustic songs and early electronica, Space Funeral is imbued with a sense of mystique to the spaces one explores during a session of play. The entirety of the soundtrack being pulled from other musicians, the eclectic soundscape consists of a mishmash of obscure acts that while clearly very different from one another, are all held together by Gillmurphy’s composition.

    The use of “found objects” is not limited to the soundtrack or gameplay either, as one of the key aspects of the world of Space Funeral is the sporadic use of other’s characters and spoken word placed in a new contextual environment. Aside from the titular protagonist and their cohort, Gillmurphy fills his world with a variety of characters made by other people— with a particular affinity for obscure figures from the golden age of comic art. These incorporations usually manifest in two ways: visual references that aren't explicitly named ingame, and characters that are fully lifted, with visual reference, name, and general personality intact. Blending both of these allows for the collage-like experience to be retained without wholly obscuring certain references or wholly ceding a vision to a preconceived idea of a character. The formerly mentioned approach is most often manifested in the enemy design, as seen in Thecatamites’s adaptation of the comic figure Fantomah, using the figure’s likeness for an enemy in the “Ghost Forest,” a subtle reference to the figure’s otherworldly mysticism and role as an environmental protector in the original source material.

    Characters that aren't mentioned explicitly are often slight nods to the source material, like the case of the aforementioned enemy character, but the use of hyper-recognizable iconography in a subversive manner without explicitly mentioning who the referenced character is can be seen in Gillmurphy’s work as well. The best example of this in Space Funeral would be the shopkeeper; an easily disgruntled capitalist aiming to profit off of the player at any opportunity, bearing a striking resemblance to the character Lucy Van Pelt from the now-iconic Peanuts series of strips by Charles Shultz. The connection to the family-friendly comic strip is quite intentional, as it adds a slight amount of humour to the encounter while simultaneously contributing to the surreality of the player’s experience. This effect is primarily due to the juxtaposition of allusion and the context it is placed in: most people would not expect a classic children’s character being a capitalist grifter selling bags of blood (the game’s form of health pickups) to a crying child in pyjamas and a sentient pile of legs (the two protagonists).

    This incorporation of other characters extends past utilizing implicit allusions to other works— central figures to the plot such as the crime mogul “Rip-The-Blood” are directly pulled from other intellectual properties, their name and likeness being used explicitly, sometimes even including locations and roles adjacent to the ones they occupied in the original source material . This is arguably a significant move, as transplanting another’s character into a role significant to the plot is something not commonly practised due to the stigma that has developed around borrowing portions of other works, however, experiences like Space Funeral clearly exhibit the feasibility of such a practises when structuring a narrative. Due to the fact that Gillmurphy organically envelops the narrative including Rip-The-Blood around aspects of his character, his role as a crime boss in the source material is adapted and expanded to fit in the world of Space Funeral , and steps are taken to ensure the inclusion does not feel forced to the player. The level of care taken in this aforementioned case does not necessarily have to be how one conducts every inclusion of “found objects” as characters or encounters, as one can also take a more liberal approach to the canonicity of character traits— something exhibited by Thecatamites in the adaption more folkloric entities like Dracula and the Mummy . These characters are portrayed in a much more humorous light, with the Mummies only speaking in low, guttural growls, and Dracula being a wine-loving homeowner with a hammy accent. Their inclusions do somewhat feel offbeat, random and memetic, but this doesn't detract from the overall experience due to the established tone being one of absurdist surreality. While Space Funeral most explicitly exhibits the use of other characters in a new world as quasi-found objects— another conceptually compelling inclusion in reference to found-object game art would be its use of poetry and prose.

    When discussing the found objects in Space Funeral, the use of direct quotes from other pieces of literature is integral to how it paints the mood of the experience and fleshes out the space the player occupies. A moment cited by many critics as being one of the iconic portions of the game is the player first entering Blood Cavern, which pairs striking monochromatic imagery with Ruth White’s recitation of Charles Baudelaire’s Spleen, putting the player in a marked state of fear and uneasiness, an effect greatly amplified by the piece paired with the visuals— a grim and hopeless poem read in an emotionless tone with electronic wails in the background . The sheer power of the emotions in this section of the game is not achievable without the inclusion of White’s work, which in and of itself is derivative of Baudelaire’s, helping to further highlight the usefulness of derivative art. Gillmurphy utilizes this strategy in multiple locations in the world of Space Funeral, helping to solidify its mood into something wholly unique and to an extent indescribable while still remaining concrete in what it is exuding emotionally. Quoted text even becomes somewhat rhythmic in its inclusion, appearing in a pattern-like fashion, always when entering a smaller, more cinematic area or alternatively before a boss encounter . This gives the player a tangible sense of stability to cling to, leading to the aforementioned static mood generated by Thecatamites, something very useful in a game built around absurdism and surreality.

    All of these unique aspects to Space Funeral’s identity and development make it a good example to point to when trying to exhibit what the beginnings of a found-object game can be, hence the labelling of it as “proto-found-object”. This isn’t to say that Thecatamites is a lone figure in the development of proto-found-object games, as a variety of developers from different backgrounds have all created works that have similar identifiable factors within the game or its development that could allow it to be classified as a proto-found-object game.

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