Another Fine Mess

A queasy blend of Phillip K. Dick and Paul Sharits, Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist is the latest from art-game designer Mark Essen, a.k.a Messhof. Filled with strobing rainbow colors, overblown psychedelic explosions, giant bouncing baby-heads and a skull-pounding soundtrack of electronic noise beats, Randy Balma's audio-visual complexity reflects Messhof's experimental media background (a recent Bard grad, he studied filmmaking under the likes of Peggy Ahwesh and Les Leveque). But it also continues a strain of sadistically difficult yet tantalizingly ingenious game mechanics that has already made Essen's work notorious in indie gaming circles. For example, one level requires the player to drive a truck from one end of a straight-line highway to another. Easy, except for the fact that Balma is supposed to be "drugged up on drugs," thus the screen is constantly rotating and the games left-right controllers keep switching valences without warning. The more visually-minimal titles in the Messhof back catalog are even thornier. The abstracted Flywrench necessitates navigating a mere flapping line through neon-piped geometric environments using a maddeningly arbitrary array of button-combo protocols, while Punishment and its sequel Punishment: The Punishing are two seemingly simple platforms that become very difficult, very quickly. In his work, Essen combines the essence of old 2D arcade games-- misleadingly cute single-player titles that did everything they could to make you choke on that twenty-five cents-- with the viewer-challenging puzzle-logic of avant-garde cinema. He's currently working on a suite of new works that include a western-themed side-scroller, a bow-and-arrow shooter, and a stenography simulator, tentatively titled Stenography Hero. - Ed Halter

Image: Mark Essen/Messhof, Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist, 2008

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