As you may have noticed, in the last few years I’ve started playing a lot of Indie RPGs. It’s been an overall positive experience, the titles often being as good as they’re touted to be (such as Bastion or Dust: An Elysian Tail), along with a few pleasant surprises (who could have known that a sexually explicit RPG that makes no pretense about its level of fanservice would actually turn out to be so damn excellent?). That’s not to say it’s all positive--Lords of Xulima was a distinct let-down in the story and characters department, and Legend of Grimrock has more or less nothing of interest to me. But as a general rule, I’m finding Indie RPGs to be good more often than those published by established companies, and when they’re not good, they at least don’t stink as bad as the regular publishers’ titles do. I’ve yet to encounter an Indie RPG anywhere near as wretched as Shadow Hearts 3, or your average Dragon Quest.
Still, even though Indie RPGs have, for me, had a very high rate of success, not every Indie RPG hits the mark perfectly, even if it’s good overall. And this is the case with Anodyne. Anodyne is a quiet, occasionally amusing, occasionally disturbing RPG that functions primarily as a work of surrealism. The problem is...surreal is really all that it is, and ironically, this single-minded dedication to surrealism actually makes it less effective than other RPGs that have tempered their surreal tone with some structure.
What I mean is...well, take another famously surreal RPG, Earthbound. It’s a game filled with irrational imagery and ideas of a subconscious style that permeate its every locale and character. Very surreal. Quirky and fun in that surrealism, too. Well, that interesting and generally amusing strangeness stays with you from the beginning of the game to its very end, and you enjoy it the whole time. There’s never a time where the abnormal aspects of Earthbound’s story and characters don’t engage your interest.
You know why I think that is? Because Earthbound provides juxtaposition to the surrealism. Even though the strange nature of Earthbound is what we remember of it, that strangeness is only able to stand out so strikingly because it’s repeatedly put against familiar, mundane, and logical backdrops. We identify with the small towns and cities that Ness visits. The culture and lifestyles of the people in these places are similar to our own. And we’re familiar with the general concept of the plot of Earthbound, which is to find plot-important locations in a quest to save the world. That’s conventional, it’s logical...it’s the integral basis of the game’s story, the foundation on which all the surreal events and people play out. And that’s why the rampant surrealism stands out--because it’s contrasted against the normalcy of much of its setting, and more importantly, the familiarity of its basic plot.
Anodyne? I don’t know where I am in Anodyne. I don’t know what the deal is. I don’t know why the protagonist must do what he does, nor the intentions and consequences of his actions. I don’t know anything about anything, and because everything in the game is strange and out there, including its plot, storytelling pace, style, and characters, I have nothing to anchor me in this sea of of strange. Without a familiar point of reference in some regard to the story, some regular logic to serve as my handhold, the surrealism is just an ongoing wave of nearly indistinguishable oddities that I can extrapolate no intellectual or emotional truth from.
Earthbound’s surrealism is kooky and fun and adds a layer of depth to the narrative because it stays tied to a core plot and setting that are familiar and upon which the surrealism actually stands out. Mother 3 takes that a step further, using a (better, more creative) plot and cast as its contrast against its surrealism, and then using its quirky, fun surrealism again as a contrast against its hard-hitting, deeply affecting emotional content. Hell, even The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening has a good method about it, seeming in most ways to be a straightforward, easily followed adventure, normal enough that the bits and pieces that are strange and out of place which pop up as you go along bring a new light to the whole adventure by contrast.
That’s how you do it. That’s how you make effective use of surrealism in your RPG. You give it the contrast to stand out. Contrast is a major part of how we understand and interpret many things, things that are primal and linked to our emotion and subconscious--in other words, linked to the parts of us that surrealism most seeks to touch and connect with. Much of your understanding of cold comes from your recognition that it is different from heat. Much of your ability to appreciate something sweet comes from knowing that food can taste bitter or sour. You only really know what darkness is because you know of the light that banishes it. Surrealism is by its very nature a primordial, irrational escape from the mundane confines of reality--and by that definition of itself, it must have those restraints to break out of for it to truly exist. The strange, sensational freedom of surrealism means nothing if we do not have the hard, bland ground against which it coils and away from which it launches into the abnormal, artistic air. With the contrast of a consistent and present plot, and/or a world with recognizable rules, surrealism can shine as it is meant to. But if all is surreal, and nothing normal, then it is lost within itself, and we are left confused and unable to glean much understanding from it.
Anodyne isn’t a bad RPG. It’s still fairly interesting, you can still piece a little something together about its deeper levels of meaning, and it still can lay a shaky claim on your emotional state. But I don’t think it will ever be the rallying point for RPG fans who appreciate surrealism the way Earthbound, Mother 3, and even The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening are. Those other, seemingly less surreal games succeed and capture our memories with their bizarre but enjoyable irrationality, but Anodyne defeats itself to some degree with its saturation of surrealism.