Heroes will always disappoint you. I don’t mean to sound like a fourteen year old who just discovered Morrissey, but the sad truth is that no amount of faith in the inherent good of humanity can guard us against inevitable heartbreak by those we look up to. The ones we admire most – the shining paragons of everything we value – will eventually crumble before our eyes like false idols. Elmo will solicit sex from minors, Lance Armstrong will inject tiger blood into his veins, Will Smith will flirt with Scientology, and the world will keep on spinning, some terrible truth about someone we believe in just waiting to come to light.
So I was hardly surprised when I found out two years ago that Doug TenNapel, creator of Earthworm Jim, The Neverhood, and some of my most cherished videogame memories, is actually a staunchly religious, homophobic wingnut. Because of course he is. Of course the brilliant imagination behind one of my favorite adventure games is brimming with hatred. Of course the man who gave us Klaymen, Big Robot Bil, Bob the Killer Goldfish, and The Evil Queen Pulsating, Bloated, Festering, Sweaty, Pus-filled, Malformed, Slug-For-A-Butt would deny gays the right to marry, because we can’t ever have nice things.
Yet as much as it pained me to discover that an artist I respected was a bigoted monster, his misguided personal beliefs didn’t retroactively invalidate the joy I had once derived from his work. Maybe the theological undertones of The Neverhood took on a more sinister meaning, but because I had played TenNapel’s games long before the internet gave him a platform to turn into everyone’s overly opinionated uncle at Thanksgiving, I was able to preserve my memories in a hazy bubble of ignorant bliss. Besides, the dude hadn’t been in the gaming business since the ‘90s. I could just go on not buying any of his comics and be satisfied that I wasn’t supporting his bible thumping with any of my money.
A spiritual successor to The Neverhood. An old school adventure game made entirely out of clay. Classic stop-motion animation. The vocal talents of Yakko Warner and Mike Fuckin’ Nelson. Soundtrack by Terry S. Taylor, the man responsible for the single greatest song ever recorded for a videogame. A talking alien dog named Beak-Beak.
I pledged $45 the second it was announced.
I wish I could tell you that supporting Armikrog was a difficult decision. That I spent days mired in an internal struggle to even consider the idea. That ultimately I stuck to my values and decided having a really cool videogame wasn’t worth supporting a man who likened same-sex marriage to a guy taking a dump in a women’s bathroom, a statement that makes me feel dirty just typing out.
But I can’t. I just told you the exact opposite of that. No matter how I try to rationalize my choice, I’ll have to live knowing that I’m willing to sell out my morals for a few tons of clay.
Though let me try rationalizing it anyway.
At the most basic level of the Armikrog Kickstarter, we have a classic scenario of having to separate the art from the artist. That’s step one, because unless you adhere to TenNapel’s beliefs that roving gangs of commitment-seeking gays are terrorizing our idyllic American towns, every dollar contributed to the campaign requires you to weigh the value of the product against the continued success of a man who would deprive people of their rights because of their sexual orientation.
Now, this is a conflict that’s raged since time immemorial, beginning with the first caveman to scrawl a couple of bison on a wall before declaring bison shouldn't be able to marry other bison. We’re not going to solve the conflict between creations and their creators in one half-baked blog post and a boycotted Kickstarter campaign. Personally, I’ve always been of the opinion that art should be able to stand on its own, viewed independently of any and all outside factors. In terms of videogames, this means ignoring every delusional word that comes out of the mouths of people like David Cage or Phil Fish, and playing their games separate from the influence of their embittered Twitter rants.
Though the issue with Cage and Fish as examples, besides the combination of their names sounding like a TV show about a pair of crime-solving longshoremen, is that while they’ve said some pretty incendiary things, they haven’t said them out of outright hatred for another group of human beings. Well, except Fish, who seems to have a grudge against the entire nation of Japan. But TenNapel is an entirely different beast. He can gussy up his intolerance as unassailable religious belief all he wants, but the fact remains that he’s trying to impede a basic liberty that should be afforded to everyone. I stand by my argument of always separating art from the artist, but I acknowledge I’ve had to do some serious mental back flips to reconcile my desire for a unique and innovative videogame with my desire to not give money to a raging asshole.
The next stop on this beautiful sightseeing tour through Suspect Reasoningville is the kneejerk argument you’ll see anyone defending Armikrog make, and that is that a videogame is not the work of one person. No artistic endeavor is, except maybe those street performers who pretend to be dancing robots in Times Square, but even those people are the product of years of neglect and abuse by the whole of society. Armikrog is the work of Pencil Test Studios, an independent game and animation company founded by Mike Dietz and Ed Schofield, two people who worked with Doug TenNapel on Earthworm Jim and The Neverhood, but who are very much not Doug TenNapel.
Then there are the previously mentioned voices of Rob Paulsen and Michael Nelson, men I grew up watching on Saturday mornings, and who I’ve idealized to the point where I firmly believe their off hours are spent inoculating sick children and spreading hope and prosperity to the disenfranchised, hopefully through the use of robot puppets. And the entire reason I jumped in on the $45 tier is because that’s the first tier the game’s soundtrack is available on, and I can’t begin to describe the pure, unadulterated pleasure Terry S. Taylor’s honky tonk guitar strumming and charcoal-smoked babbling brings me. Just take a listen to “The Neverhood Theme,” or “The Battle of Robot Bil,” and try to resist the urge to throw money at your screen until this man makes more music.
Yes, it’s possible all of these talented people are part of one big, shadowy cabal who meet every Tuesday to bemoan the loss of “traditional values” and discuss the best way to rid the world of their archnemesis Neil Patrick Harris. Or, more likely, they’re all individuals who are putting forth an immense effort to lovingly craft a work of art that they believe is special and worth their time. Doug TenNapel may be the creative voice driving the project, but he’s a single part of a team, and the money put into Armikrog will go toward helping that team bring a fictional clay space fortress to life, and not toward supporting one man’s awful, myopic bigotry.
All of this isn’t to begrudge anyone for not supporting Armikrog out of principle. I wish I had the strength to stand by my convictions like that, and not sell out like a total consumer whore. Because by the look of countless comment sections,think pieces and, most tellingly, a pledge total that's going to need some kind of Daddy Warbucks miracle to reach its $900,000 goal in two days, it seems there are plenty of people who are much stronger than I am.
I’m simply trying to talk through my own decision in what is unfortunately a complex issue. This should be a no brainer. I mean, we’re talking a full-fledged semi-sequel to The Neverhood, the kind of weird, hyper niche game that could have only been put out by a major studio in the experimental days of the ‘90s. They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Or if they do, they’re made by an indie developer on a much smaller scale, like The Dream Machine. Which I’m sure is an absolute delight but, no offense, kind of looks like what would happen if Ben Wyatt finally finished Requiem for a Tuesday.
But while Armikrog promises to provide the kind of indelible, imaginative experience that I crave in videogames, it comes at the price of knowingly supporting a man with some reprehensible ideas. I mean, he wrote an article on how Republican women are happier than other women because “they don't mope around like victims or screech about how terrible men are for being men.” Seriously. He wrote that. That awful thought occupied his head, and then he transcribed it for other people to see. Horrible, right? I just gave $45 to that. How do you think I feel?
I wish this was easier. I want so badly for there to be a correct, clear cut stance on this issue. Armikrog looks like a lush, colorful blip of hope in the endless slog of military shooters and mindless face-stabby murder simulators, but the loathsome qualities of its primary creative mind place the adventures of Tommynaut and Beak-Beak squarely in a moral grey area.
Which, I guess for a videogame made entirely out of clay, is kind of fitting.