Yeah. the title just didn’t feel quite right without an exclamation mark. I’m not sure why ‘JazzPunk!’ isn’t the official title, because if any game deserves exclamation marks it’s this one. The entire experience of JazzPunk revolves around
With every action you take, the game has an unequal and perpendicular reaction. Every bit of every environment is full of little jokes, and even if most of the jokes are kind of dumb each one is, in its context, given the element of surprise, hilarious. Sometimes all that makes a good joke is telling a bad joke at the perfect moment. Everything is timing. Everything is context.
You play as some kind of secret agent. Who you work for isn’t important. Who you’re working against also isn’t important. There seems to be a lot of deception and skullduggery going on, but none of that’s important. What’s important is in the moment, and at the moment you’re collecting spiders for some reason or making a cowboy vomit up his kidney or murdering a mechanical pig. Why? Also not important. Just do it.
Given that looseness, you would expect something similar to the non-sequiter cartoons of [Adult Swim], who published the game – and, to a certain extent, that is the case. Weird nonsense keeps happening, tied vaguely together by a surreal spy-thriller pastiche narrative. What makes it feel different, though, is the character you play, Polyblank, seems to be, rather than a helpless audience member for the craziness, the primary force of chaos, weirdness, and hilarity in this world. Though the interactions surprise you, the player, each action undertaken seems to be exactly what PolyBlank intended to do. PolyBlank is Bugs Bunny, walking into a fancy penthouse, flipping eggs into the face of his enemies, bouncing off of the pavement effortlessly after a four-story fall, wearing sexy drag to seduce unwitting foes, hamheadedly walking into the most obvious traps because that’s what the narrative requires. In JazzPunk, you’re not just being told jokes, you’re telling the jokes along with the game, and that participation makes them that much more hilarious.
In this hyper-active environment, even the most tired gameplay tropes take on a new and humorous light. The absurd fetch quest, where you have to find an arbitrary number of some item and any less simply won’t suffice, actually fits perfectly into a world full of game parodies and references, even as it serves the player-routing purpose those quests usually serve. You have to collect 5 spiders – why five? Because there’s a ‘0/5’ at the bottom of the screen and a little bell will chime and tell you you’re done when you get them. This is little different than the completely straight-faced execution of games like World of Warcraft except that the context that they’re set within is so ridiculous that the inherent absurdity of these actions becomes self-parody.
What makes JazzPunk such a vibrant experience is just how responsive the environment is – not just anticipating your actions, but using them as platforms to build jokes off of. It is the closest a pre-scripted game has felt to the kind of improv game that actors play, building off of every strange premise towards a stranger conclusion, fractal weirdness spiraling outwards and inwards. This kind of responsiveness has to be exhaustively designed into a game: The idea of somehow coding this experience into an algorithm is inconceivable. How do you turn the truly unexpected into a procedure? It’s an inherent contradiction. There are no labor-saving methods. There is no easy path to making a game like this. The only way to make a game like this is to put the time in, to really engage with your hypothetical player, and to fill every inch of the game with little love notes. That love shows.
For all the joy of that direct engagement, there’s a few spots where the game could have probably used a bit more polish. Wandering around for 15 minutes looking for the right place to cook a mechanical pig kind of kills the pace of the game, especially when there is an actual oven which you apparently can’t use, and.are several fires around which look very similar to the one you need, using the same animated fire sprite at approximately the same size. This could have easily been resolved by changing the color of the fire slightly, making it bigger, making it cast more light or flicker more, increasing the size of the stones lining it or making them brighter, making it cast a plume of smoke visible from a distance… anything to make it obvious that this thing is an Important Thing. As it is, it kills the pace of a game that relies primarily on timing to be enjoyable, so I would consider this single moment to be the game’s biggest flaw.
Playing JazzPunk, observing how readily and effortlessly it cribs aesthetic and jokes and ideas from disparate sources, I’m reminded of the oft-quoted phrase, “good artists borrow; great artists steal.” This phrase can be and has been interpreted in many disparate and contradictory ways – that’s what makes it so useful. But when I play JazzPunk, when I think about my own work, I think about how when I set out to evoke an impression or emotion inspired by another work, to imitate an aesthetic, I move gingerly, am easily waylaid by ideas, self-doubts, and confusion. However, if I decide to just copy something, my agency and need to make conscious decisions is forestalled, and I can just create. And, because I am flawed, my creations, my theft, will be imperfect, and I will have, in my plagiarism, created something new, something uniquely of myself even as it attempts theft. How much of the greatest art is created by attempting to imitate something and failing? How many great works are crafted of a clear medium, using the message of another, and imprinted with the indelible and personal flaws of the artist?
We all imitate. We are all echo chambers. But our shape which wraps around the reverberations carves them into forms, makes them new, even as it strives for fidelity. Steal however much you want; your fingerprints will always show.
Next: BattleBlock Theater