22 November 2009

Conker's Bad Fur Day and the Epitome of Gruesome Cuteness

Last week I posted in detail some of my first impressions on playing eight-year old Nintendo 64 game, Conker's Bad Fur Day. This is quite an auspicious game with some of the greatest sociological, philosophical and cultural implications of any piece of media I've ever experienced. Now, you'll notice dear readers, that I apparently only play Nintedno 64 games. Well, this is simply because it really is one of the best systems ever made. There's a reason why when I turn my stereophones up it's cranking out straight Beatles and Zeppelin. They're the best, regardless of age. I feel the same way about my video games. Conker and Zelda are the best so I play 'em. Now, let's get down to it:

Realism vs. Cartoonishness

Throughout the game Conker maintains an edgy line between cartoony tropes and realistic events. A good example of this is whipping out a frying pan and whacking enemies, but once hit they spill out blood and die. It uses cartoon staples (see also $$ for eyes, flattening under falling blocks as well as plenty of anvils and big puppy eyes) but often with more realistic results, including plenty of real, (and eventually emotional) deaths. A giant part of the game is pulling objects out of thin air, however it's classified and categorized, using set Context Buttons that pull out very specific items for specific situations. There are also more specific references to zany Warner Bros-type situations, including action reminiscent of "Bully for Bugs" as well as an ending sequence talking to the programmer and rearranging Conker's own world artistically that recalls "Duck Amuck."

King of the Gruesome Cute Sub-Genre

Where Conker diverges obviously from most of the silly, child-friendly cartoons is its unadulterated raunchiness, which I call "Gruesome Cuteness." There are a few other pieces of media that fit into this sub-genre including Maakies/The Drinky Crow Show (which I discussed briefly here) and Cerebus. Probably Cerebus a bit less is aligned with this subgenre, but it comes pretty close. Sometimes in Conker this type of dark humour falls flat and ends up appearing simply immature instead of brilliant, but other times it really pierces through kiddie and platformer tropes ("Great Balls of Poo" and "Sunny Days" comes to mind). It really rules the niche though, and is able to subvert the genre Rare virtually created with games like Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64. The subgenre emphasizes cartoon characters who drink, swear and fuck, which weirdly gives them a little more realism and entitlement within their own cartoon world. They still play with their own cartoonish reality but without the limits of an arbitrary G rating. The characters are really allowed to blossom and stretch their wings to whatever foul territory they may lead.

Penance and the Failure of Fame

Conker lifts a lot from A Clockwork Orange (1971) from the use of Henry Purcell's Funeral March for Queen Mary II to the general theme of penance for evil deeds. Throughout the early part of the game Conker is often directly responsible for and ambivalent towards many innocent deaths ("Marvin," "Yee Ha!") for which there never seems to be a direct punishment. Not until "The Assault" does Conker really see the horrors of the world around him and suffers through some of the terror he had been careless about earlier. His final pain comes through the death of Berry and his failure to resurrect her when he had the chance. This is all very reminiscent of Alex DeLarge's penance for ultra-violence and rape early in the film. The thematic similarities do not end there however -

Let's compare the initial scenes in the movie, then the video game:

Here's Conker, feel free to fast forward to about 1:15 in:

From the identical pacing and music to the milk motive and Kubrick Stare, the homage is uncanny, and frankly, unprecedented for a video game. It works as just one of many impeccable film parodies and homages throughout. Most follow movies that were very popular at the end of the 20th Century (Saving Private Ryan 1998 and The Matrix 1999), but there is also use of Alien (1979), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), Night of the Living Dead (1968) and of course the aforementioned Looney Toons.

Moving on towards the ironic ending, Conker is ultimately full of regret and failure. Conker has the world and fame, but realises it's not what he truly desired. It's important to note that this is a rare game where the initial goal is never reached. From the outset all Conker wants to do is get back home after his hangover. This never happens. He finds a new home with new friends, but they're friends he despies and a home he's not content with. Thus keeping with the Clockwork Orange theme, Conker is ultimately punished and pained by the end for his earlier recklessness. Pretty advanced stuff for a cartoony game. Some of this idea of the failure that fame affords the wrong people, often leading to dark comedy can also be seen in Funny People (2009) and The Venture Bros.

Existentialism and the Absurd

Conker works in a world without much reason, but is wholly pervaded by the Absurd. There is no karma or justifiable action for much of the story (besides the aforementioned Clockwork Orange-style poetic justice). Bad stuff happens to many good characters for no apparent reason other than humour (see "Bullfish's Revenge," "Count Batula"). Thus is the absurd. While there seems to be little meaning to life in the world of Conker, there is still perseverance (Conker's life loses meaning so he keeps drinking, furthering his adventure, embracing his absurdity and living in spite of it. Yes, I lifted this directly from Wikipedia but it's true), thus separating the world from Nihilism. As Conker and the other characters fight for meaning, the innate absurdity of the cold universe crashes around them (see "Rock Solid," "Saving Private Rodent"). Conker's long inability to truly recognize his absurd life leads to his downfall. Instead of recognizing then rejecting "Enter the Vertex" as an absurd situation, he pushes through which leads to Berry's death. Only when it is too late (precisely the final scene in which he takes a new direction out of the bar) does he quite literally leave the absurd world for different trails.

So there you have it. One of the greatest philosophical and cultural games I've ever experienced. I dare you to do better.

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