The Catamites’ Games Might Look Rough, But They’re Remarkable
We speak to game designer Stephen Gillmurphy, aka The Catamites, about the deep foundations of his ostensibly lo-fi creations.
One of the greatest things about gaming is the vast scope of creation on offer. Like cinema, it's difficult to conceive of an idea that someone hasn't at least had a stab at, be it a big budget blockbuster or scrappy art house effort. So many releases stray from the extremely prescriptive definitions of what games "are".
Working under the name "The Catamites", or "thecatamites" as it's so often seen styled online, Stephen Gillmurphy has been frustrating expectations and creating his own 'zine-like aesthetic across numerous free—and recently, paid-for—titles. They cover a gamut of esoteric and goofy references, from Coleridge in Pleasuredromes of Kublai Khan, to slasher movies in Drill Killer.
There's a wonkiness and general rambunctious charm to the vast majority of his games, which are discrete, compact affairs. Often hand-drawn, nearly always incredibly lo-fi, with music ranging from slinky chiptunes to ambient drones, they tackle everything from the troubles of sleeplessness and anxiety, to the trials and tribulations of newspaper headline editors.
His latest game is, in comparison, somewhat of an opus, a paean to the memories of 16-bit JRPGS. Magic Wand is full of irreverent, rambling characters and vivid landscapes that are like hazy remembrances of role-playing games as a kid made real again, with a palette set to dazzle.
"It was sort of an attempt to voyage from early Scritti Politti aesthetics to mid-to-late Scritti Politti aesthetics," Stephen tells me. "Although, I have yet to see whether the graft will take."
Markedly different from the scrappier, almost-scribbled look of 50 Short Games, released earlier in 2016, Magic Wand is a larger and more coherent piece. And Stephen was clear about its direction—to be bigger and more complex—from the beginning.
Above: 'Magic Wand' trailer
"I felt the cumulative effect was a little dry. All the [games in] 50 Short Games are sorta these scratchy, circumscribed, flat cartoons, so taken all at once it really made me wish there was more room for some kind of dreamy quality in there. So I wanted to make larger, more spatial games with more color for a while.
"Magic Wand was definitely meant to feel richer and less obviously janky—if you fall off levels you mostly don't just continue falling down forever, which is not generally the case in my previous games. But I don't think it's really a break from that format so much as just an equally goofy extension of it. Like, it's just a Klik N Play game that perversely happens to be two hours long."
The consistency of style over such a large body of work actively denies any accusations that Stephen's games are directionless, perfunctory, or even broken. They're very knowing and incisive glimpses into very specific parts of games. "Bogey's Report", for example, is a short vignette from 50 Short Games where you play a detective who wanders around a basic RPG village, calling attention to its layout and the function of its NPCs, before cutting to the character at home reminiscing about Secret of Mana. There's an obvious through line from these ruminations to Magic Wand, primarily in its commentary on the artifice of the genre.
"All my thoughts about JRPGs in general are kind of filtered through playing with RPG Maker, which gives the really uncut version of the same feelings you can get from [old] Square games or whatever. Just this ostensible narrative slowly buried under layer after layer of tape loops. For example, you are building the first village and thinking, 'Well, I'll start slow.' And before you know it you're busy sketching out sublevel 12 of the optional sewer dungeon below your parent's house."
The looseness of Magic Wand ties into this, with its compact but intimidating structure. Protagonist Radiget wanders around a pastiche of 16-bit RPG worlds, talking to rambling NPCs that proffer little in the way of advice, instead just regurgitating their own peculiar little dialogs. The settings appeal to the nascent game designer within every player, stringing together vast deserts with mysterious castles, raucous train journeys and airship rides.
Stephen likens the experience of making games in RPG Maker to accumulating "slime" over a series of scrapped assets and junked ideas: "I missed the slime, and I wanted to return to the slime, and that's why I made a JRPG."
His own theories on games come through in his work. He once called his creations spaces for him to "string little weird set pieces and jokes along, like beads on a wire". Magic Wand is no stranger to this with its frequent non-sequiturs.
Stephen creates games akin to 'fanzines for a version of the format that doesn't actually exist, apart from in small pockets and the hearts of children everywhere'.
Stephen's games end up being weirdly confrontational in this respect. Instead of falling into line with tradition perceptions, they end up elusive and vague. He explains that he doesn't really care for most of what he is "tempted to call actually existing video games", instead creating something akin to "fanzines for a version of the format that doesn't actually exist, apart from in small pockets and the hearts of children everywhere".
If this is all sounding fairly airy and detached then it probably has something to do with one of the touchstones for his games: the postmodernist novels of author Thomas Pynchon.
"Pynchon was influential because I liked those shaggy-dog narratives and the way people, ideas and places kind of emerge and disappear back into the shuffle, rather than assuming a fixed role. The burred dialogue in Mason & Dixon was something I liked in particular. Other reference texts were games like Hylics, Ghosts of Aliens and Bat Castle, which all have this kind of mangled, jabbering pastiche dialog which still manages to make sense just because it's in an RPG."
The way the NPCs in his games often cartwheel in and utter slippery snippets of speech is evocative of how many characters fade in and out of focus in Pynchon's works. It's curious, too, as games are frequently grasping towards stronger narratives, or tipping their hats at the influence of literature; yet some of the more progressive texts only appear to find their reference in games like Stephen's. Games that feel simultaneously at odds due to their scope and intricacy.
Whereas postmodern novels can often be bulky, dense affairs, Stephen's games are more like a cryosection from a greater body: totally complete on their own terms, but alluding to links with greater purpose.
Stephen's thoughts on games are also distinctly humanist. "I don't think a video game can make friendship or memory or compassion or whatever more intelligible," he says. "But it can make them less intelligible in engaging ways, which is sometimes what you want."
The Catamites' portfolio of scrappy games complement each other to comprise a growing anthology of poetry, both personal and abstract. They address topics that are familiar, such as memory, video games past and present, anxiety and dreaming. Instead of attempting to force out a clumsy workaround, they're disarmingly honest through mild obfuscation and lyrical mystery.
Magic Wand plays the most like a traditional video game of the stable, and as such it's an ideal starting point in The Catamites' world of hucksters, gadabouts and rogues. They're lo-fi haikus from a singular voice, charmingly irreverent in a world of games so heavily focused on pathos and grandeur.
As for his future plans, Stephen is "still messing around". But then, one of the wonders of this medium is that there's something magical about the way that "messing around" can ossify into something more pertinent and lasting.
Follow Luke on Twitter.
Find The Catamites online here.