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In Buzzard, living is hell

Buzzard, which was created in part by the forward-leaning design squad Babycastles, and recently launched at their gallery in New York, marks its own territory somewhere between a standalone game and a movie tie-in. Inspired by the recent film of the same name by Joel Potrykus, the game is less an adaptation of the film and more an illustration of it. Your enjoyment of this might depend on either your familiarity with the film or what you want from a game, but it is regardless a rare object: a handmade adaptation of an authentically independent film, where each title seems to illuminate the other.

Potrykus’s movie follows a not-quite-young man named Marty with a temp job at a nondescript bank in the midwest, who listens to metal, puts chips on frozen pizza, and seems to only have one (terrible) friend. He tries to release himself from this dead-end existence through petty crime, which ultimately leads him into a deeper dead end. The film is excellently made and beautifully evokes an atmosphere of aimless American living, mediated slightly by the comfort of lurking off to a suburban basement to play old videogames and chug Mountain Dew. Marty is the kind of person who goes to the movies alone wearing a rubber monster mask, who takes pride in fashioning a Freddy Krueger glove by attaching kitchen knives to a Powerglove—and, perhaps even more tellingly, Buzzard is the sort of film where tenderness, and pathos, is conveyed through one character offering to let another finish his level in a Genesis game. The true feel of microwave grease and Doritos dust is all over it.

Buzzard, the game, details that same atmosphere while approaching it from the inside. It uses an “8 bit” style, and mimics the frenetic pace of arcade-style games of the late-80s and early-90s—the same sort of games we see Marty frequently playing. While the film watches Marty and his acquaintances through the detachment afforded by a camera, the game feels like it is being projected outward from the world of the movie, as if it were a piece of the total environment which the entire Buzzard project articulates. The game, in its own way, brings us deeper into Marty’s emotional world than the film can; through its hyperactive, high-fructose aesthetic, it gives us a clearer window into his moods and habits, what it is really like to sweat it out on some dank sofa in west Michigan.

its hyperactive, high-fructose aesthetic

Buzzard gives the player a collection of mini-games which it cycles through at random. Each of these games are short—sometimes amazingly so—and are presented with minimal instructions. This modular structure, maybe a result of the several minds who created the game (at least four Babycastles-affiliated designers worked on Buzzard) mostly works in the title’s favor; your first playthroughs offer a constant flow of new experiences, which encourages the player to keep returning in order to see how many variations on the main theme there are. At the game’s launch, I watched many players repeatedly fail to get the hang of certain levels in time to beat them; yet, after losing all their lives, they would inevitably start over in order to try it again, to figure out the trick to whatever round had just flashed past them. The game encourages compulsion, much like Marty’s quest in the film to continue fighting the odds even the very enterprise of his life appears hopeless.

Though each level is pretty simple—always based around a core action that flies by as soon as it’s understood—the game is not necessarily “easy.” Buzzard is not really a game to be mastered, nor is it really about skill, or winning; it’s about being in the world of Buzzard. The game completes the image of scuzzy DiGiorno malaise so perfectly, but so differently from the film, that it strongly, if maybe accidentally, underscores part of what makes cinema and software such different art forms.

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Though punctuated by moments of rage and violence, Buzzard, as a film, mostly moves at a patient pace, allowing its incidents breathing room and time for a base level of tension to develop. As a game, on the other hand, it moves so fast that it at times feels like it is pranking the film; some of the charm of the game is that it can feel like a parody of “videogames” in general and Buzzard, the movie, in particular. One level cleverly references an early scene in the film which consists of a long, unbroken close-up of Marty as he waits for a bank attendant to re-enter the room. In the context of the film, this shot provides us with a feeling of intimacy, and a creative statement about where the film is going to go, how it will work narratively, what we can expect to be shown, or not shown. In the game’s language, the complementary scene instructs you to “Wait”; the level is “won” by doing nothing, and letting time pass before the other character re-appears on screen to deliver dialogue.

Though narratively these two scenes are almost identical, the function across the two mediums is different. While both films and games are time-based forms, films are more inherently passive; we expect things to happen that we have no control over, and when something takes a while to unfold, it is more easily absorbed in the commonly agreed-upon language of cinema. In games, there is still an expectation that we have control, that progress happens because of our choices as players. Though a brief moment, the adaptation of this scene from film to game clarifies a profound difference between these two mediums, and what sorts of ideas can be simply adapted from one to the other.

It can feel like a parody of “videogames” in general

Levels like this one play with both the structure of the source material and what we expect a videogame to be. In a different level, the player controls Marty in a straight line across an Office Max parking lot to kick over a box full of office supplies. While this level’s prime motivation is to directly reference a moment from the film, as a play experience it becomes something like a distillation of what game mechanics even mean; you are presented with a linear task, there is one way to do it, and then you do it. It is nearly impossible to lose this level (though I did see this happen to a of couple players who missed the on-screen instructions).

Other levels are more “gamey”: a scene from the film in which Marty feeds Bugles to his friend Derek on a treadmill makes a seamless transition to the game. In another, you have to accurately aim a squirt of ranch dressing onto a frozen pizza. In yet another, you sharpen the knives on your Krueger glove by following a directional pattern laid out on screen (for whatever reason, this level gave me the most trouble). The tension between traditional arcade-style action and more conceptual moments gives Buzzard a tone somewhere between sincere tribute and provocation—which, as an adaptation of the film itself, is not too far off-track.

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In evoking the “stuff” of the film, Buzzard, the game becomes a series of discrete moments which catalog and clarify a separate creative work. Sort of an homage to the bitter, yet heartfelt spirit of the film, as well as an entire era of action-based gameplay, Buzzard references nostalgia while frustrating it. It feels like a retro throwback, but unlike, for example, Shovel Knight, it doesn’t play by the rules of what has come before; it manipulates the feeling of classic games to summon a sort of comfort and familiarity, which the actual experience of the game dismantles. It is not a game to make you fondly remember your childhood. Like the film it sits alongside, Buzzard is more interested in looking at how life, as it drifts into adulthood, is disappointing, and how the pleasures which relieve that disappointment are so often brief, random, and infrequent.