If my short time putting words on a screen has taught me one thing, it’s that it’s easy to abuse the term ‘Lynchian’. When ‘surreal’ feels lacking, ‘Lynchian’ is always just that one step further down the rabbit-hole; a neon-emblazoned sign screaming ‘WEIRD’ to anyone who’ll listen. More often than not, the eponymous David Lynch has nothing to do with it.
So if I say that Space Funeral is Lynchian, I suppose I should set up some boundaries. This is no Dune. Akin to the closing hour of Eraserhead, or Twin Peaks’ infamous Black Lodge sequences, Space Funeral taps into Lynch’s more overt style of surreal, deriving an ironic kind of despair from the commonplace, and twisting the familiar back in on itself in ways rarely seen in videogaming.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Developed in RPG Maker by a man known widely as The Catamites, if little else, Space Funeral is a bare-bones RPG built on hellish foundations. Our heroes are a sad man in pyjamas, and a horse composed of disembodied legs. The landscape is coated in toxic greens and pinks. Skulls, blood, and death are accepted as standard, while knowledge of the medium is necessary to navigate the game’s title screen, let alone the adventure beyond. In many ways, it’s a game trying its hardest to destroy any conceptions of what a game should be.
David Lynch once expressed his distaste for works ‘that are one genre only’; a line that The Catamites follows to the letter here. Though Space Funeral may occasionally appear rational, it’s not afraid to collapse in on itself and start anew. Comedy landscapes fall into hellish descents, becoming horrifying new worlds in the blink of an eye. The promise of adventure is mocked; the coherence of story rejected. The game is always the first one to tell you that none of it matters.
It’s a stance embodied in the ‘Blood Ghoul’, one of the game’s first, and perhaps most significant, boss encounters. Thematically, it’s nestled firmly within the game’s motif of despair; its home, the Blood Cavern, viewed through a darkened lens of what is assumedly blood, accompanied by a haunting audio reading of Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Spleen’. It’s the game’s most unnerving section, and yet is concluded with a nonsensical speech from the Blood Ghoul itself, a splicing of the Charles Baudelaire poem ‘The Fountain of Blood’ with Otis Rush’s blues staple, ‘All Your Love (I Miss Loving)’. It’s a blatant comedic juxtaposition, and the first of many off-kilter surprises, establishing the game’s conflict between comedy and horror, and the creator’s blatant disregard for both.
It’s also one of the more ‘Lynchian’ aspects of the work. Look at any of Lynch’s ‘darker’ moments and pay attention to the soundtrack, or the visual composition, and you’ll notice they adopt similar juxtapositions, for example, the softly lit, Roy Orbison-backed sadism of Blue Velvet. For both The Catamites and Lynch, its paramount that a world can’t be taken too seriously – there needs to be some form of distancing: some room for thought; for dumb enjoyment. Space Funeral is a pitch-perfect fusion between ‘high’ and ‘low’ entertainment.
In this vein, when Space Funeral isn’t poking fun at itself, it takes jabs at RPGs as a whole. Random emphases in NPC dialogue announce the importance of mundane objects, dialogue trees with only one option poke fun at the game’s strict linearity, while Maguffins cheekily reign supreme. ‘You should visit my BROTHER’S STORE’, an NPC coldly states. ‘It is full of WORTHLESS CRAP’.
The game doesn’t punctuate its jokes, it simply leaves them scattered around, in such a high volume that the player is bound to find something to laugh at; often mere seconds after finding something to be terrified by.
Occasionally, it might even begin to make sense. Like a dream, Space Funeral is defined by an internal logic that – while not strictly coherent – is inherently believable. The Catamites may like to feign ignorance, but for all of the game’s low-resolution warts, it exhibits a clear aesthetic sensibility. As with Lynch, what could easily be dubbed ‘random’ is far from it – it takes a certain craftsmanship to make something so obtuse and still keep the player laughing, thinking, and recoiling.
Consider the game’s ‘Bombdogs’, enemies that – true enough to their titling – are little but dogs with bombs crudely supplanting their heads, dredged from the decidedly inartistic depths of MS Paint. Though they may at first seem like little but a lazy afternoon on the creator’s behalf, they begin to make sense when held alongside the genre’s past output: the sentient bombs and evil abodes that crop up in almost every ‘classic’ RPG.
Rarely professional and never relatable, Space Funeral’s environments and denizens are clearly stitched together from RPGs new and old, risen like a twisted Frankenstein’s monster, arms outstretched and moaning in a contorted imitation of what has come before, in much the same way that Lynch’s vision mimics so many of the idiosyncrasies of late-night public access TV. It’s nonsensical, but sensibly so.
Funnily enough, the game’s weakest points are where it is most rational. In a review for Kill Screen, Filipe Salgado argues that the game’s relatively straightforward mechanics defy its absurd edge. ‘How can I not be a little disappointed that while I’m compelled to explore, all the game wants to do is fight with numbers?’ he writes, and true enough, the combat can be long. The grind can be tedious. Worse still, it can be repetitive. Yet I can’t help but feel that Space Funeral warrants review because of those very complaints.
This is a game that is knowingly flawed. A straight-faced adherence to RPG standards may seem discordant with the game’s anarchic sensibilities, but as time drags on and routine begins to sink in, it begins to inherit meaning.
Space Funeral soon becomes sincere. The jokes run out – grow expected – and before long the fight sequences become real challenges to be faced, the game becomes a war to be fought, often simply testing the player’s attrition. From the ground-level, it’s a bad experience – but one that becomes genuine. Space Funeral is an art-game with traditional skin stretched over its face; it’s visage terrifying and yet familiar all at once.
Considering how little the game has to say for itself, the player is forced to fill in the blanks. Introspection breeds retrospection, and Space Funeral draws deeper comparison with RPGs both new and old; to the systems that it no longer parodies, but embodies. Intentional or not, it asks questions of the genre and its systems, and to the value we – as players – place in the extraneous details in between. The game’s ending – which I won’t spoil here – only further drives home the point that Space Funeral is still just that: a game. A game that is clearly identifiable and playable in spite of its absurdities.
Like the best of Lynch, it takes a known entity and stretches it to a contorted extreme. If Lynch’s Blue Velvet represented the seedy underbelly of small-town America, then Space Funeral represents the seedy underbelly of role playing games.
It doesn’t feel like a critique of the form so much as acquiescence to its boundaries. Sure, Space Funeral is funny. It’s dumb. You can ask Dracula what he’s up to, and goad him into admitting his love of weed. You can preach enemies into pacifism. From the outside, it’s an anarchic joke with dream-like sensibilities, but from the player’s seat, it’s a surprisingly absorbing experience.
I’ve often described anything ‘Lynchian’ as a thought held for too long. As with semantic satiation, voices and images crumble into dust with too much attention, an effect forced into existence throughout Lynch’s career, and one proudly incorporated here.
In the light of The Catamites’ work, where ‘morality’ is a status effect equally as valid as ‘poison’, a return to my beloved childhood favouriteFinal Fantasy 7 is tainted. I can’t help but laugh when Cloud falls asleep mid-battle; in much the same way that I haven’t been able to sincerely watch a soap opera since Twin Peaks. The damage has been done, the absurd has won.
Under the combined lens of Space Funeral and Lynch, all videogames are surreal, held together by little but the ‘illusion of coherence’ – this game just dares venture that little bit further. Intentionally or not, The Catamites brings attention to the fine line between the rational and the absurd in videogaming; where the systems rely so heavily on shorthand that anything is possible.