I have to admit, I was looking forward to Devo Presents: Adventures of the Smart Patrol. Not that the geeky New Wave quintet from Akron, Ohio, made deathless music in their early-’80s heyday. Actually, their lone big hit, the mildly kink-o ”Whip It,” was probably the dumbest robotic sing-along this side of ”Funkytown.” But the company shepherding Devo’s entry into CD-ROM games is Inscape, the L.A.-based multimedia studio responsible for the Residents’ Bad Day on the Midway and the Edgar Allan Poe fantasia The Dark Eye — spooky, atmospheric interactive environments that represent commercial CD-ROM’s artistic high-water mark. It seemed as if Devo’s smarmy retro-futuristic cleverness might finally have found its niche.
Perhaps the project devolved on the way to the PC, but Smart Patrol is a major disappointment on all counts, from its backdated visual style to its impenetrable gameplay to its buggy navigational controls. You can’t fault Devo’s tech cred: Unlike most rock artists, the band (led by Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale) was deeply involved in all aspects of the CD-ROM, scripting the story, composing the music, overseeing the graphics. In the end, though, the whole thing seems so pointless that you can’t help but get a little cheesed off.
Well, yes, all CD-ROM games are basically pointless. From Myst on down, they’re a good way to drop three or four weeks out of your life with nothing to show except carpal tunnel syndrome. But Smart Patrol is so hermetic, so smugly wrapped up in its little world, that it quickly becomes a club you don’t want to join. Playing the game requires immersing yourself in a near-future universe called Spudland. You have 12 game hours to travel to various locations while helping the five Gen-X members of the Smart Patrol capture the renegade lab mutant Turkey Monkey, discover a cure for the bone-dissolving disease osso bucco myelitis, and overcome such bad guys as monopolistic health-care provider Universal Health Systems, right-wing fundamentalist Pilgrims, and Big Media (BM for short). If that’s not enough, you have to be clued in to various allied good guys like scientists Sun Wang Pin and Dr. Byrthfood, ethereal prankster Booji Boy, and his father, General Boy. Confused yet?
If the multimedia aspects of the game were up to snuff, the overkill might not matter. Unfortunately, Smart Patrol is a bit behind the techno curve. Many games feature full-motion video these days; here the characters are poorly digitized images laid out on squishy photo-realistic graphic backgrounds (the designers seem to have used the spectral Japanese CD-ROM adventure Gadget as a reference point). To advance to the game’s later stages, you have to collect five old Devo videos (virtually the only time the group itself appears), but you get to see only half of each one. And navigational controls are too small to manage easily: Clicking to bring up the Options menu often sends you to the next screen instead.
Don’t get me wrong: Fully envisioned alternate worlds can make for marvelous CD-ROMs. Anyone who has ghosted through Myst or been sucked into Gadget or sampled Bad Day on the Midway’s pulpy sense of doom knows this. And it’s true that Smart Patrol’s feverishly detailed future paranoia is similar to what the old Firesign Theatre comedy troupe used to create on brilliant records like I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus. Firesign, however, had a fundamentally serious social and artistic vision beneath all the Dada vaudeville. They also were funny. With merely goofy dialogue and arcane devolutionary slang, Devo are just wanking about with prefab cult iconography (Booji Boy has been the group’s mascot since the late ’70s), and there’s nothing behind the attitude but more attitude. To paraphrase one of Smart Patrol’s own pseudo-slogans, Devo have ”laid a million eggs.” This is one of them. D+