Last winter I took part in a panel discussion on CD-ROMs and multimedia narrative at the Sundance Film Festival. The 200 or so people in the audience were hardly sympathetic: producers, directors, screenwriters all staring daggers at folks on stage who might someday put them out of business. They watched a rough, early version of The Residents’ Bad Day on the Midway in stony silence. Robert Redford’s untitled ecological CD-ROM didn’t make much of a splash either. Then multimedia producer Joe Sparks got up and demonstrated his three-years-in-the-making music-video adventure game, Total Distortion — and at the end of the demo the entire audience stood and cheered.
They fell for Total Distortion because unlike the other discs, it came across as a direct reflection of the man who made it: funny, frenzied, obsessively attentive to twisted details. Clearly, this was an adventure game to be enjoyed even by people who hate adventure games. In fact, there’s so much going on in it that you can have a high old time even if you never get past the starting gate.
A description of Distortion makes it sound sillier than it plays. As explained via several breezy introductory animations, you have set up shop in an alternate plane of existence known as the Distortion Dimension. Your mission: Find material for music videos, edit it into shape, sell it back on Earth, and earn enough money and fame to ensure passage home. That’s the game — but the pleasure’s in the wonky details.
Sparks apparently has a major Spike Jones fetish — everything you click on lets out a bonk, frap, or eek! Bored with music videos? Head to the on-screen bookshelf and diddle with sundry mini-games, including a version of Mr. Potato Head that uses Sparks’ own chubby-rocker face. How to deal with the evil Guitar Warrior? Engage him in a duel of infantile taunting. Eventually you do have to play the game, and it’s a brain buster of luck and logic that had me getting killed off with annoying regularity. But hey, if I hadn’t died, I would never have heard that peppy ”You are dead” kiss-off song.
In a way, it’s ironic that the Sundance crowd cheered Total Distortion: With what Sparks guesstimates to be 50 or 60 hours to get through the game, this is the antithesis of a linear, two-hour movie experience. But Sparks clearly understands the two rules of modern filmmaking: Don’t take yourself too seriously and never, ever let them get bored. A-