'Fancy life as a cockroach?' The Age 2 July D11 (1996)
Given an offer of reincarnation, what creature would you prefer to be? Though freedom of choice is not widely recognised in Buddhist theology, this armchair exercise can reveal much about how we locate ourselves in the natural world.
Most people, we expect, would elect to return as a higher-mammal, such as a noble beast of the African plains or a pampered domestic pet. And the least preferred option? It would most likely be one of the arthropods at the bottom of the heap. Who would come back as an insect? The only reward for a life of ceaseless toil seems a summary execution by predator or human boot. Apart from some famous pop groups, what club or nation ever took an insect for its symbol?
Those wishing to do some serious research before committing themselves to their next life will find on the shelf today a number of useful CD-ROMs. Savage simulates the trials you must undergo to grow up as a lion in the Serengeti. The Dorling Kindersley Virtual Reality series plunges us into the lives of cats and birds. But, strangely, it is the insect option which receives most attention.
Your assigned proxy in Bad Mojo takes some getting used to. In crafting his surreal tale of alienation, it is no wonder that Kafka choose a cockroach as the outcome of Gregor Samsa's Metamorphosis. `These portentous little machines', as Primo Levi called them, inhabit precisely the world we shun: dark recesses and rubbish.
Bad Mojo does little to rehabilitate the cuddle-challenged. The game forces you to navigate through rubbish bins, maggot-ridden meat and old TV dinners while avoiding the natural hazards of insecticides, spiders and cats. But survival itself is not the ultimate goal.
The opening sequence shows a nerdish young Roger Samms attempting to abscond with some research money. On opening the locket of his death mother, a spell is cast turning him into a cockroach. As a cockroach, you must navigate through drains and cables to uncover the mystery of his past.
Publicity for Bad Mojo stakes its worth as new Myst-or more specifically, as `Myst directed by David Lynch and scripted by Franz Kafka'. Myst is the measuring stick for any successful CD-ROM title that doesn't involve blasting the world to smithereens. No subsequent CD-ROM has of yet demonstrated the qualities necessary to claim the title of legitimate successor.
Comparison produces some surprising results. Both titles evoke a mysterious world largely abandoned the Prospero figure who first created it. Your role as player is to piece together what remains using clues obtained from vantage points. This overall picture provides information ncessary for re-connecting circuits that bring broken mechanisms back to life. Once the real story is discovered, the father is released from his sad plight.
Reducing the space between player and screen to an occasional cursor lent Myst a poetic ambience. Likewise, using arrow keys to direct the cockroach gives Bad Mojo a transparent ease. One of the pleasures is working out how the minuscule efforts of one bug can trigger a series of momentous events.
But there's a `gross' difference. Bad Mojo is Myst in form, but certainly not content. We move from the sublime way down to the ridiculous. The makers are unable to resist filling the screen with the kind of ham acting that recalls stilted gestures of early cinema. Ironically, improvements in video compression since Myst may have a negative effect on content. This focus on a nerdish young male further narrows the audience. Though some were critical of Myst's incidental narrative, in Bad Mojo the link between player action and plot seems purely arbitrary. Its prime value is sociological.
Like most things, when you begin looking for insects they begin to appear everywhere. Arthouse CD-ROMs like David Blair's WaxWeb explore the more conceptual possibilities of entomoid intelligence. World Wide Web certainly has its share of insect sites. Fans of Bad Mojo can hang out at Cockroach World to spend a day in the life of Rodney Roach.
Perhaps the most appealing pastime is to figure out the reasons for this idenfication between insects and computer users. There are both concrete and abstract parallels. Marshall McLuhan called modern man `the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world': rather than masters of the network, our role is reduced to servicing it with bits of information. This has concrete form in our reduction to a screen cursor-the little hand or arrow that is ourselves on the small screen. Compared to the grand gestures possible on the draughting board or canvas, work on the screen is mostly made of small adjustments and minor accretions of data. Certainly nothing could be more insect-like than struggling with interminable attempts to unravel a majestically rendered CD-ROM.
More generally, the life of insects is often used in opposition to the importance of individual identity in human societies. The insignificance of a single life compared to collective survival is a point of comparison between totalitarian societies and insect colonies. Along with the new ecological order comes a reappraisal of this specism. In his book Out of Control, Wired editor Kevin Kelly predicts a networked future where `more is different'. In Kelly's phrase, `A slow, wide creativity of many dim parts working ceaselessly' produces a kind of hive-mind that is impossible to control but capable of quantum leaps of intelligence.
The question about future reincarnation may not be an idle one. Extended to the scale of human society, there are serious proposals to forgo our anthropocentric status and adopt the more collective nature of those creatures lower down the ranks. Bad Mojo is not the answer, but it's a sign of deep questioning.
This review was originally published in The Age newspaper (2/7/96 D11)
Copyright held by author Kevin Murray