/ Leigh Alexander / 5 am Thu, Sep 17 2015
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  • This adventure game about a strange clown is absolutely brilliant

    This adventure game about a strange clown is absolutely brilliant

    I've fallen for this strange new adventure game about a horrible, balloon-like clown with a gaping maw full of yellow teeth.

    The clown ambles through a pale, sweet but cheerless city, where residents mope, mourn and preach to the sidewalks, lost in their troubles. The clown wants to give them hugs. They all hate clowns.

    I've never understood our cultural fear of clowns. From the time I was small I've felt the twang of empathy for the painted, mournful funnymen, the way their bright-colored clothing seemed to contrast with the work of earnest self-humiliation—pies in the face, squirting flowers, falling down—for laughs. My French grandmother gave me a porcelain mime figure whose cheek was painted with a tear. I would stare at it til I felt like crying myself.

    The game is called Dropsy, after an old-timey term for heart-related water retention, and stars a large nonverbal clown apparently of the same name, who constantly grins as if he were in pain. Any place he may lie down to sleep, he has strange dreams. It's a "point and click adventure" in the loose sense—you explore the world and resolve problems by coupling objects with destinations or people—but it feels to me more like exploring an emotional landscape, sketched in the colors of sidewalk chalk, at some turns touching and at others grotesque and sad.

    When you start the game in Dropsy's tent, you see things set out for the birthday of a girl we assume is his only friend, a crayon drawing he has made her for an annual gift. Your first goal is to bring her present to the graveyard where you're told she can be found. Oh. She's in the graveyard. Right.

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    There are no words in the game. Even when you think there ought to be, like when there are signs to read or when messages of success and reward flash on the screen, the language is invented and unfamiliar, words and letters like alien balloon-animals twisted together before your eyes. The downcast citizens of Dropsy's town express themselves in visual shorthand that cycles through speech bubbles over their heads: They feel blue, they are lonely, hungry, too hot, bored, stoned. They will often "say" a picture of Dropsy's face with a great DO NOT circle and cross over it. Authority figures ward Dropsy away with angry squiggles and bright, intransible exclamations.

    This means figuring out the needs of others is part of the game's gentle puzzle. The music, a sort of unusual pastel jazz (by the wonderful Chris Schlarb), is perfect: It wholly captures the melancholy of having only a simple person's small hope in a big world full of twinkie devourers, expensive prescriptions and do-not-enter signs. The sun also moves across the sky as you explore, meaning sometimes it is dawn or daytime, and sometimes it is evening or late at night. Characters move and obstacles appear and disappear depending on the time period; the lady preacher you find in the church by day can be found smoking lonesomely atop the children's slide in the playground at night.

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    I keep on hearing Dropsy described as "creepy" or "weird". I think those are generally off-putting descriptors, as they sometimes suggest the "lol so random" school of humor, or the unconsidered "gross for its own sake" aesthetic. But the game is neither of these. In fact, it put me wonderfully in mind of the animation and aesthetics of the early to mid-1990s. The neon slime anxiety of Nickelodeon GUTS, the vivid too-fast-for-grownups headache of Sonic the Hedgehog or the $7.99 mall goth looks of Hot Topic were what youthful rebellion looked like when it was packaged to sell, but much of that decade's art had reasons for intending to offend.

    As a child, MTV's late-night Liquid Television animation bloc (recently revived!) was squicky, forbidden viewing. You and your friends were supposed to be in bed, not guiltily watching Beavis and Butt Head hit a frog with a baseball bat, skinny limbs with high socks flailing. The early Aeon Flux cartoons, about a grotesque and non-conforming revolutionary woman, were haunting and silent. The Maxx was a hulking, impenetrable anti-hero in a world where depression, stalkers and the threat of sexual violence were hard-scribbled plot points. In The Head, a pallid milquetoast harbored a socially-defiant and generally-disgusting alien inside his skull.

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    In each of these cartoons, and in so many of the music videos that aired luridly past midnight among them, the lewd and the gross elements were acts of defiance against what was perceived to be the economic complacency of the 1990s. The stability that Baby Boomers had worked for in the 1980s was rejected by their 1990s children, who used concepts like shopping, self-esteem, the military and good grades as comic launchpads for messages about non-conformity. The hippie teacher who preached positive thinking, the mall-worshipping cheerleader, the career-woman mom, the furious authority figure, were all the butt of the joke.

    The era's fashionable anger concealed the mundane truth that most 90s kids were just bored and lacked direction, overwhelmed by all that parenting and the sinister message that You Can Do Literally Anything. The flannel shirts of those days prized their angst and ennui, took a certain enjoyment in being disenfranchised. Characters like Enid Coleslaw of Ghost World or Daria, the star of the cartoon of the same name, were seen as ideologically purer, somehow, than their bubblegum fellow citizens, even when their abrasive personality traits often left them ostracized.

    In Dropsy, the vaguely gross clown plays the role of the "pure one"; while others sit on the stoop and bemoan religion and hunger, dream about aliens and prescription drugs (a distinctly '90s thing to do), he earnestly seems to want to solve problems, give hugs, and take pleasure in gentle images.

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    When Dropsy's shameless farts trumpet from dirty toilets there is a purpose to that grossness; you feel sad for him and the ways that he and his parachute pants stuffed with crayon drawings, flowers and sandwiches to share clearly do not belong in this city full of preoccupied humans.

    Are clowns the ultimate emblem of the way sometimes laughing and crying feel like the same kind of thing? Are we scared of them because we're scared of the contradictions human feelings can contain? Whether you like clowns or strongly do not, Dropsy is a strange and delightful space to ask the question.

    Dropsy, by Tender Shoot and Jolly Corpse, published by Devolver Digital, is $8.99.

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