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All You Need is Lovecraft, December 22, 2013
The Apollo 18+20 entries are an eclectic lot: some of them adhere fairly closely to the source material, while others mainly use it as a jumping off point for, say, experiments in graphical IF, or whatnot. Most of the Fingertips games are the latter, by necessity more than anything, as it's hard to be faithful to the source when it's a five-to-ten-second-long song snippet. As such, it should probably come as no surprise that S. John Ross chose to adapt The Day That Love Came to Play as a Lovecraftian pseudo-horror game; at the very least it's a suitably punny interpretation of the song's title.
The game concerns a lounge singer on the day, the very moment, of his last performance. It seems he's pledged his allegiance to some malevolent dark lord or another, and he's getting in his last kicks before (Spoiler - click to show)the world kicks the bucket. Playtime is short; while there's one move that leads to a "true" ending, it should be obvious after a couple replays, and the other moves feel final enough, at least in aggregate, that a player could easily be satisfied without ever seeing the real ending.
It's a comical game, or at least it's meant to be; there's a couple digs at lounge music, and the main character and his audience are portrayed as mostly mockable losers. But there's an unusual poignancy about the game, which no joke about Frank Sinatra can ever really hide. Part of this comes from the subject matter, as it is a game about (Spoiler - click to show)the end of the world, but there's a darkness that pervades even the game's lighter moments, like the implied bitterness with the music industry that seems to be the lounge singer's primary motivation for following the dark lord. Even the true ending seems to feed into this deeper poignancy: (Spoiler - click to show)first a few paragraphs of dénouement, then a blank screen, then nothing, as the game suddenly quits itself.
Now, if this were the only game in the Apollo 18+20 project to feel like this, I'd probably chalk it up as the author not doing a good enough job of making the game funny, or possibly to the difficulties of rendering humor through text, or perhaps even to myself for reading too much into things. But there are other games which feel similarly. I was mainly thinking of Dig My Grave, another funny game about a gloomy subject, when I first sat down to write this review, but now that I think about it The Statue Got Me High is just as dark, and even the very silly My Evil Twin had me feeling sorry for the protagonist at times (though mostly for his stupidity). I think these games touch upon an important part of the They Might Be Giants oeuvre, in that silliness often gets mixed into the dark songs, and vice versa. After all, that blue canary in the outlet by the light switch seems bitter, almost angry about not being the only bee in your bonnet, and Gal and Lad's relationship is so fundamentally broken that only the pure destructive force represented by a crane can possibly fix their lives. They wrote a song about a man who falls desperately in love with a woman on literally the other side of the planet, whose name he probably just read up in a phone book, and another song about a radio DJ who convinces a young artist to participate in a payola scheme, that all the others who had participated had forgiven themselves for "the colossal mess they made of their lives", then runs off with the money, leaving the poor artist in the dust.
Now you're probably thinking that I'm making those songs look too dark and downbeat right now, and you'd be right! Because it's all about the balance between levity and gravity with They Might Be Giants, and their tribute album should reflect this balance. Focus too much on the light side, and you end up with an amusing but pointless oddity like Nick Montfort's I Palindrome I. Focus too much on the dark, and you get the moody adolescent angst of Joey Jones's If I Wasn't Shy (sorry, Joe). But all the best games in the Apollo 18+20 Comp, like Jenni Polodna's Dinner Bell, or both of Ryan Veeder's games, or even Andrew Schultz's I'm Having a Heart Attack, manage to get this balance just right. They may lean toward one side or another, but they're still balanced to an almost perfect degree. And so too with The Day That Love Came to Play.