The San Francisco avant-garde rock group the Residents has been around for more than 20 years. But consider yourself forgiven if it's passed under your personal pop-music radar. Aggressively conceptual, obscurely witty, so leery of fame that its anonymous band members favor giant eyeball masks in concert, the Residents pretty much define the words underground and cult. Yet a funny thing's happened in the last few years: The band has become the single most influential artistic force in multimedia CD-ROM. Its 1994 disc, Freak Show, vastly expanded the medium's narrative and graphics possibilities in a way that discs as varied as The Artist (Formerly Known as Prince) Interactive and Under a Killing Moon immediately picked up on. Now the group's latest project, The Residents' Bad Day on the Midway, expands on that expansion. Simply put, it's a dead-of-night stunner that crawls under your skin and stays there.
As with Freak Show, the Residents don't "appear" in Bad Day, yet their fingerprints are all over it, from the haunting kitchen-sink dialogue to the ticky-tacky songs to the general atmosphere of humane decay. The key band members are from Shreveport, La., and the disc has a Southern Gothic ambiance that would make Flannery O'Connor feel at home. Set in a seedy carnival midway, Bad Day lets you follow eight characters - including Lottie the Human Log, Dagmar the Dog Woman, and Jocko the He-Man - as they wander the grounds seeking redemption, amusement, riches, or love. You can check out such sideshow attractions as Dixie's Kill-A-Commie Shooting Gallery or Torture's Top Ten (No. 2 is "Assailed by Unanswered Questions"), but the main events are the eerily sad human stories hidden in the carny's back rooms. Since you can constantly switch characters, and since the plot combinations are nearly endless, Bad Day literally never plays the same way twice.
If there's a star here, it's the graphic design: a rich swamp-rot mindscape overseen by Freak Show's Jim Ludtke with contributions (in the tales within Bad Day) from such underground-comix stalwarts as Richard Sala, Paul Mavrides, and Peter Kuper. Kuper's take on Otto the rat keeper's grim backstory is particularly breathtaking: As the funky, stencilled images unfurl across your monitor to the unsettling strains of the Residents' music, it's clear that a whole new way of telling stories is being born.
The publisher of The Residents' Bad Day on the Midway, a company named Inscape, is probably best known for their 1996 release of The Dark Eye, a creepy yet poetic rendering of several of Edgar Allan Poe's most famous stories. Bad Day on the Midway was published earlier (late 1995, and in fact contains a trailer for The Dark Eye) and was created by entirely different team of artists, but both titles share the same technology as well as the same atmosphere of utter weirdness. If you enjoyed The Dark Eye (which was named scariest adventure game of all time by JA), don't miss Bad Day on the Midway because both are one of a kind experiences. Needless to say, if you didn't like The Dark Eye, there is not much chance that Bad Day on the Midway might be appealing to you.
The force behind Bad Day on the Midway is the eccentric and enigmatic rock band The Residents, and in particular Jim Ludtke [Mr. Ludkte passed away in March of 2004 - Randy], illustrator and animator who had previously worked with The Residents. Bad Day on the Midway is a cooperative effort of a number of cartoonists and illustrators, accompanied by The Residents' music. As an interesting aside, David Lynch was at one point supposed to create a series based on Bad Day on the Midway, but the project never materialized.
Bad Day on the Midway is primarily a game of exploration. It takes place at the Midway, a decrepit, macabre and slightly scary amusement park. The names of the park's attractions such as "Kill a Commie", "Torture's Top 10" or "Sperm Whale Giving Birth to an Electric Eel" should tell you something about the place. You start out as Timmy, a boy of about ten years, who is very excited about the Midway and fascinated by all of its attractions. As Timmy meets the Midway's residents (some whom are attractions themselves), you can see and hear their life stories in the form of graphic novels. Each of these novels was created by a different artist and has unique style.
Where The Dark Eye allowed the player to experience Poe's stories from the point of view of both victim and perpetrator, Bad Day on the Midway goes one step further, making things very interesting and very confusing indeed. You can assume the identity of almost any character you encounter at the Midway, and that includes a rat (a real live rat, although one or two human rats can be found at the Midway as well). The Midway experience is slightly different from each character's point of view. For instance, some locations are only accessible when you're playing as certain character. Additionally, you can always see a "stream of consciousness" version of what your current character is thinking, and certain places remind characters of past events.
From what I said above, it should be clear that playing Bad Day on the Midway is somewhat random and freeform. But not entirely, because although the game doesn't have a clear objective, it does end. You can either die prematurely, for instance being strangled by a psychotic killer, or you can survive for sufficient in-game time and experience one of about ten different endings. Some of those endings are happy, some aren't. Most of the endings can only be triggered by playing as particular character and visiting the right location or performing certain action.
I will deliberately avoid describing the game's story. There is not very much of it and discovering what's going on is most of the fun in Bad Day on the Midway. If you want to know, play the game!
Technically, Bad Day on the Midway is one of the many mid-1990s games based on Macromedia Director and QuickTime. Bad Day on the Midway uses 256 color graphics, and especially the game world looks grainy, but I'm sure in 1995 the graphics looked good. The in-game graphic novels have better graphics than the rest of the game. As I mentioned earlier, each animated sequence or graphic novel has a different look, and most are highly stylized. Bad Day on the Midway is absolutely not a game for cartoon haters.
As could be expected from a title created by a music band, the sound of Bad Day on the Midway is quite good considering the game's vintage. The music comes in a variety of styles, all of them fitting the atmosphere. The voice acting is of good quality and each character has a distinctive (and in most cases rather unusual) voice.
The interface is entirely mouse driven and uses node based navigation with smooth transitions between locations. The game world isn't especially huge and moving between locations is easy. There are very few objects to interact with in the game; most events are triggered simply by visiting certain location. There is also no inventory whatsoever - everything is firmly nailed down.
There are no puzzles per se in Bad Day on the Midway. Since there is no inventory, there is obviously no room for inventory based puzzles, but there's no mysterious machinery present either. The biggest puzzle is figuring out what's happening at the Midway and exploring as much of the amusement park as possible. To do that, you simply have to switch between all the available characters and visit various places.
As a consequence of the above, it is almost impossible to judge the difficulty level of this game. Simply surviving and viewing one or two of the endings is not hard. Thoroughly exploring the Midway and experiencing all possible endings is a good deal harder, not least because it's impossible to tell how many endings there are.
There is no doubt that The Residents' Bad Day on the Midway is a one of a kind experience. It may not be a title with a "mass market appeal", but that in no way diminishes its value. It is a very well made game, especially considering its age. The variety of graphical and musical styles make Bad Day on the Midway even more interesting. On the downside, the game is rather short. Bad Day on the Midway is such an oddball title that I'm not even sure it makes sense to grade it. After lengthy consideration, I decided to give it an A- but please keep in mind that this is by no means a typical adventure game. Have a nice day on the Midway!
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