7 Supremely Bizarre '90s PC Games That Featured Musicians

Tuesday, October 2, 2012 at 8:04 am
StupidSymbolThingInteractive.jpg
Okay, that title probably makes it sound like I'm stretching, but here me out: as videogames rose in popularity in the mid-nineties and became a viable merchandising opportunity, it should be no shock that other industries took interest. Many infamous examples exist of musicians and music companies trying to make a buck with a Make My Video or a Kiss: Psycho Circus. There was a period, though, when the popularity of Myst and similar titles inspired more broad-minded folks to come up with something weirder, and so we have an interesting bunch of games (or, if you want to sound old-fashioned, CD-ROMs) that give us an artist's attempt to use this new medium to experiment, some more than others.

I'm not as concerned with whether these are good games or not so much as the fact that they exist in the first place. These days, you can download an app about an artist you like, but that's usually just clips, pictures and isolated pieces of information, not a trip through a mystical palace on another planet. I suppose Bjork's Biophilia and similar apps might be considered the descendants of the specimens on this list, but it's just not the same. Like it or not, there's simply no going back to the cultural moment that gave us the following. As you'll see, that may, in some cases, be for the best.


7) 9: The Last Resort

A crazy old house, a magic monocle, a flying Jim Belushi, and an ever-extending musical code: sounds like pure gold, no? Yet, weirdly, this highly ambitious title was not a success despite the presence of the most random voiceover cast ever, including Cher, Christopher Reeve, Ellen DeGeneres and, of course, Joe Perry and Steven Tyler as the evil snake demons that have taken over the mansion. Your job is to restore the Nine muses or something and kick out the demons, who are known as The Toxic Twins because Joe and Steve really like to challenge themselves when taking acting gigs (this places Last Resort on the Toxic Twin continuity sometime after the Sgt. Pepper movie but before Armageddon). Essentially, this game is just as obfuscating as most first person point-and-clicks, except with Jim Belushi yelling things like "Hey! Sir Lancelot!" in your ear the whole time. Ugh. According to Jim, there are probably better things to do with your time.

6) Prince Interactive

Technically this should be called "The Artist Once Formerly Known As Prince Interactive" or "[Love Symbol] interactive", as it was released during that awkward period in his life when Prince decided he could no longer be represented by earthly typography. Too bad: I'm taking the cheap route. Like Myst, Prince/Symbol/Whatever Interactive puts you in a strange environment to explore and solve puzzles but, unlike Myst, there is no real moral or message to learn other than "Prince is really awesome." Your main goal, aside from digesting this, is to find the five pieces of the Love Symbol, which will enable you to power your spacecraft (how else did you think you got there?) and escape Prince's sprawling estate. Unsurprisingly, the Purple One is all over the place, whether it be in shape-shifting pictures of him popping out of vases, his gallery of posters and awards or video interviews with other musicians talking about how great he is. Thank the waters of Lake Minnetonka that Graphix Zone gave us this gift: now you too can imagine what it might be like to see Prince's Oscar! Should you succeed in your task and recover the full symbol, you will be rewarded with an exclusive video made just for the game that shows us once and for all what happened to Linda Perry's hat after 4 Non Blondes split up. Biggest disappointment of this game? The Artist himself never shows up to make you some pancakes.

5) Adventures of the Smart Patrol

You can say this for Devo: they know how to commit. While none of the games on this list have aged particularly well, I'm pretty sure the pyramid heads intended this punishing bit of virtual insanity to be stilted and cheesy from the day it was released. You may only have twelve game- world hours to help the Smart Patrol save Spudville from the chaos of the Turkey Monkey but it just scrapes by, forcing you to sit through embarrassing dialogue and try to figure out what exactly you're supposed to do before each in-game hour ends (always accompanied by an irritating warning message). The ending actually has a nice satirical bite, provided you can accept that the whole game is basically a joke, but it doesn't make it any easier of a fractal- dissolving pill to swallow ("Perhaps it would be better for you to stop playing games and get a life," a character says at one point. Somehow, I don't think getting people to stop playing this game was a problem.). Grating as it may be, there is at least a good amount of music and the trademark sense of weirdness that you'd expect. Aside from that, I understand this game offers the chance to experience wild things like profanity and nudity on your computer, but I've been told we've made some progress on those fronts since 1996.

4) The Rolling Stones' Voodoo Lounge

Yes, if you ever looked at your Macintosh and wondered why it hadn't yet shown you a Quicktime video of a tiny Mick Jagger peeing, Voodoo Lounge is the CD-ROM for you. The album Voodoo Lounge itself is ok but certainly not any more deserving of its own adventure game than, say, Their Satanic Majesties Request. It marked a comeback for the Stones, though, so I guess it makes sense that they wanted to promote the event somehow. Why they did it by putting you in an interactive Louisiana mansion is unclear, but it's more interesting than other similar products, like that arcade game Journey got. There are skeletons, sexy dancing girls, morphing versions of that damn tongue logo, and lots of concert footage. I actually have Voodoo Lounge in my house this very moment but have tragically been unable to unlock its contents due to my computer and its stupid post-1993 OS. Soon as I get Windows 3.1 running on this baby I'll be sure to give you all a full report.

3) Peter Gabriel's Eve

Sledge! Not to be confused with the popular screensaver Eve Online, Eve was actually Peter Gabriel's second foray into the virtual realm, the first being Xplora1. Eve was tilted slightly more in the direction of something we might recognize as a game, though only slightly. After clicking through images of bubbling mud and inseminating a sort of weird space ovary, we find ourselves in a lush photomosaic meant to represent Eden. What follows is a sort of surreal tour through various scenes from a certain book of the Bible that might also be the name of a certain band Pete may have been involved with once. Recurring motifs include men with pink briefcases, geishas with pink briefcases, art, dirt, and the strange notion that touching sea creatures and rocks in the right order will produce the backing track for a Peter Gabriel song. Your ostensible goal is to recover a series of little icons from Rael's music videos, but the real point is to just wander lonely as a cloud and click on stuff and think about the life choices you've made. Nestled within are multiple sections where you can play around with music samples and clips of Gabriel's voice, as well as footage that seems to have been culled from either a documentary on relationships or the world's worst video dating service (as far as I know, there are no appearances from the Slipperman, unfortunately, though there is a slight reference to Willow Farm). It's a deliberately confounding but fun title, and offers more in the way of content then you'd expect. Unlike some of the other names on this list, Eve is, I think, meant to be an uplifting experience. I must admit, though, I'm a bit biased. Even if this had been just an interactive version of the album cover from Foxtrot I would have loved it instantly. I wonder if there's an Easter Egg where you get to play Punch Out! with the giant floating head of Phil Collins.

2) Bad Day on the Midway

The prolific underground art collective known as The Residents are the pioneers of the weird PC game, having created some of the most infamous cult examples of their time. The crowning jewel of their creepy eyeball-shaped crown has to be Bad Day on the Midway, an unsettling experience that, unlike much of their material, is actually quite compelling. You begin the game as Timmy, a feckless boy who has wandered onto a thoroughly creepy fairground by himself, but during the course of the game's events you will get the option to switch over into the POV of other characters you meet. At any time you can read the stream-of-consciousness thoughts of your current host at the bottom of the screen, which alternate between being hilariously irrelevant and heartbreakingly sad. Every ugly, twisted face on the midway has a story to tell, and when you're not checking out attractions like the Museum of Military Power or the Rat Race, you'll be greeted with a cutscene detailing some new tale of loss, longing, hardship, or regret. Some of these, like the story of the tattooed lady, are downright poetic; others will make you scramble for the EXIT button in the corner of the screen. The variety of different backstories keeps the proceedings from feeling too aimless, and the eeriness is held just enough in check so that things don't get too alienating. If you feel like you should give The Residents a fair shake but generally find their masks too scary, this might be a (slightly) more palatable way in to their dark genius. They also do an excellent cover of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite", among other things.

1) Puppet Motel

To be fair, I'm doing Laurie Anderson a disservice in lumping her in with some of these other titles: in addition to being a musician she's also a legendary multimedia and performance artist, and Puppet Motel, designed by Hsin-Chien Huang, is more like an interactive gallery than a game. That's not to say it makes a heck of a lot of sense or that you'll necessarily enjoy hearing power outlets talk to you about ears for five minutes, but it encourages experimentation and does present you with something different every time you boot it up. Because of that, there's no easy way to describe exactly what you do in the game. Move from the "corridor of time" through poorly lit rooms and click on stuff, knowing that your click could do pretty much anything: open a window, make a painting talk, animate a drawing. Anderson takes familiar elements and leads you to something unexpected, unlike some modern art games that tend to try to reinvent the wheel with various degrees of success. And most importantly, Puppet Motel is a symbol of a time when personal computers offered poetry and the running of a strange program carried with it a dark sense of mystery. I wonder if Anderson's husband Lou Reed ever popped this one in out of some (perhaps chemically induced) curiosity. For the record, I would definitely rather play it again than listen to Metal Machine Music, which may be the most backhanded compliment ever, but I mean it. I think Lou might even agree with me.

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