La La Land (2006) is a series of five short games by Matt Aldridge with recurring themes and a consistent protagonist. Of the series, Anna Anthropy has written: “in the way that static might draw attention to the pauses in a phone conversation, la la land emphasizes those vast between-spaces in the dialogue between player and game.” Anthropy’s description eloquently explains why these games defy explanation. They accent pieces of interaction we’re not used to talking about with words. In some ways, the games practically play themselves, though probably not in the exact ways you’re thinking.
La La Land 1 is the opposite of what most would think of as a “first level” or introduction. It greets you with confusion and apprehension, jagged geometry and dark, visual noise. The screen is hard to look at. The sound is made up of chords played backwards and low, guttural vocals in a fake language on a broken record player. You control a cute, grey, cat with an open, red mouth and lopsided ears. Of this cat there are many copies onscreen at any given time. A large, numerical score audaciously punctuates the chaotic backdrop, laughable in its contrasting clarity. This number spastically jumps around on the screen, tracking your progress as you fetch lighting-bolt-like collectables. It serves as a comforting, familiar trope, reminding you of progress and grounding your participation in the confusion. Because even as you are thrown into the unfamiliar you are still jumping, performing an act of familiarity, a thing that’s like a handshake in the videogame space. The game, however, is content to limit this familiarity. You can’t jump to higher surfaces, and your character spawns at random elevations.
The cooperative understanding that normally unites player and system is notably absent. This game feels like it’s fighting you, and it feels broken, but in a very intentional way, as if selectively comprehending a small percentage of your input for its own manipulative purposes. Rewards are glimpses of videogame logic, scattered in the noise. The sensation is that the system enjoys messing with you but is not entirely in control of itself. Considered as an introduction, One immediately sets the series apart. Instead of attempting to instruct or govern the player’s approach, it concentrates on evoking a desired mood. Out of the entire series, this game is the longest. The most frustrating. The most abstract.
Two is shorter and more direct. Greeted by onscreen text and a hulking, swaggering “poor fishhead in need of money,” you learn that your cat protagonist is called Biggt. Shooting and jumping abilities are gone. All you can do is walk left or right. In the adjacent screen, you encounter two more fishheads, marked as nobility by their formal attire and fancy wine glasses. The fishhead nobles sit at either end of a long, wooden table, jerking spastically, as Biggt’s doppelganger stands in the middle of the room crying yellow tears. An amorphous pile of yellow that must be gold waits patiently in the lower left corner of the screen. As you take gold from the nobles’ pile and deliver it to the poor fishhead in the next room, the nobles’ glasses fill up with tears, and the poor fishhead says thanks but demands more. An onscreen monetary value tracks your progress. The music sounds something like what self-help, eco-poetry must sound like, recited, accompanied by soft, electric organ riffs.
In this satirical Robin Hood fetch quest, dialogue is strangely spelled and punctuated: “Look at the shini JEWEL i bougt thanks a lot,” the poor fishhead exclaims. Unlike the previous game, Two presents little in the way of challenge. Curiously, it’s the only game that comes packaged with explicit instructions. In the game folder, a facetious “readme” file reads: “left for left right for right.” Though the art remains harsh and scribbley, characters and backgrounds are more clearly discernible than they were in One. Clear themes of exploitation and greed emerge, but I think this game is less concerned with larger economic or political issues and more concerned with one character’s struggles to function underneath an exploitative authority umbrella. Two marks the start of a narrative thread in which Biggt’s internal constraints are exacerbated by cold, manipulative, external forces.
Three recalls the dark palette of the first game, but its screen is much less busy. Biggt’s open, red mouth has been replaced by rows of scratchy teeth. In his room, Biggt complains of having to eat oranges every day: “there has to be something MORE.” On the left side of the screen sits an amorphous pile of orange that must be oranges. As you venture outdoors, Biggt encounters a tree with a fallen coconut at its base. The game prompts: press “up” to eat. When you oblige, Biggt’s teeth fall out. Further on, there’s an apple, still clinging to its branch. One of the fishhead nobles loiters behind the apple tree, wearing a maniacal, toothy grin. The game prompts: press “up” to reach for the apple. When you oblige, Biggt’s arms fall off. Biggt suddenly becomes overwhelmed with hunger. The only thing to do is return to the first screen and the oranges that Biggt can no longer eat.
This game punishes you (and Biggt) for trying to participate, just as it asks you to do only one thing and nothing else. A wounded exploration of social anxiety and failure, Three sees upward mobility as a pipe dream. The saddest thing about Three is that the fear that causes Biggt to stay in his room and eat oranges everyday is justified when he ventures out into the world. There are no instructions for this game in the accompanying readme. Just a message: “if you feel like you need to talk to someone about your problems, my e-mail adress is email@example.com thanks.”
In Four, Biggt wears a chef’s hat and stirs a pot, having presumably resolved to prepare, for others, the food that he can no longer eat. The game’s initial screen presents a simple platforming puzzle, more reminiscent of the typical videogame scenario than anything we’ve seen up to this point. After you complete the puzzle, Biggt’s newest employer, a fishhead noble, shows up and barks orders at Biggt to serve the guests. When you press the arrow keys, Biggt walks out of his body. One screen over, Spirit Biggt is greeted by a woman screaming “what have you done?!” on loop until you walk against her repeatedly. Then, she departs, and Spirit Biggt flies to the moon in a heart-shaped spaceship. On the moon, Biggt encounters another Biggt-like creature with long, blonde hair. When you move towards her, Biggt is pushed away by the unseen. A monstrous manifestation of Biggt’s head appears, and you flee until you reach Biggt’s bed, which transports him back down to earth. Four shares much in common with Three in that it describes an attempt to escape. The escape in Four appears more spiritual than corporeal. Love eludes Biggt. When he flees the physical body, a demon follows. Like in Three, Biggt’s efforts to operate outside of imposed reality prove disastrous and terrifying.
Five’s title screen is festive, filled with confetti and upbeat music. The game’s story begins “5 days ago” with Biggt in bed. This Biggt has teeth and wears a tidy, black suit. Biggt’s room is sparsely decorated with only a bed and a door. Biggt ventures outside to discover a multitude of idle, identical fishhead citizens. Press “down,” and Biggt throws a Bible. When Biggt’s aim is true, the fishheads catch the Bibles and fall asleep, completing a transaction. Onscreen numbers climb as Biggt sells more Bibles. Once you satisfy Biggt’s food budget, you can access his bed at the far right side of the screen, and the day ends. Each day, Biggt wakes, and you repeat the ritual. Every day, Biggt’s market becomes more saturated, as more fishheads start their day already asleep. On the next to last day, all fishheads are asleep. On the final day, the background blurs, and Biggt is suddenly old and bearded, rolling in a wheelchair at a slow crawl as a cheery, anti-evolution chorale plays in the background.
The final game is pitched as a celebration but only offers bleak futility. The pinnacle of Biggt’s journey is a lie. He peddles promises that put people to sleep. Biggt’s attempt to exist within some semblance of normalcy produces maddening mechanical exercise that leads to a dead end, a boring ballet just as discouraging as the failures that came before. The career transition from under-appreciated cook to Bible salescat provides little in the way of change or redemption. Biggt subsists for a while, but does not live, and then, Biggt dies.
Videogames often reach for the whimsical or irreverent, but rarely do they embrace the outright nonsensical. La La Land considers the overlap between disturbing and amusing and demoralizing. It flirts with the unintelligible, as it enforces a narrative thread. While One establishes tone, both Three and Four present escape narratives in which Biggt tries and fails to usurp oppressive reality. Two and Five portray Biggt’s unsuccessful efforts to find place and meaning in society.
What strange, heart-breaking meditations on life, poverty, anxiety, loneliness. And how wonderful, that such a jarring collage of interactive imagery can communicate such an unexpected kind of subtlety.