Neofeud: Pastiche and Critique

Initially, I intended to write a short review of Neofeud and explain how it touched me with its admirable intentions despite several evident flaws in its design. Then I’ve played a bit more and figured that there is something more interesting going on under the covers. Finally, the game’s ending left me with a rather unusual feeling that I couldn’t leave unresolved. Here’s the attempt to fit the experience of playing Neofeud in my head.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Neofeud is a retro point-and-click adventure game developed by Silver Spook Games—a one-person studio consisting of Christian Miller. Miller is a Native Hawaiian, and he based the game on his personal experience as a STEM teacher for the poor youth of Honolulu. While having nothing but respect and a deep appreciation for that fact, I choose not to refer to it during my analysis of the game. I think that will keep me more objective and focused on Neofeud‘s text itself instead of on the person behind the scenes.

The game’s Steam page describes Neofeud as «a Dystopic Cyberpunk adventure game.» Cyberpunk has made a big comeback to the mainstream media in the last several years—as with such games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the recent overhyped Cyberpunk 2077, so as with movies and tv-series as Blade Runner 2049 and Altered Carbon. But it doesn’t mean that the genre was utterly abandoned before—quite the opposite is true: the genre was active more or less continuously from its literary beginnings in the 80s through its audio-visual iterations in the 90s and 00s. That’s even though most of its critics declared cyberpunk dead almost immediately since the genre’s inception.

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay approached with criticism towards Bruce Sterling’s introduction to the Mirrorshades anthology, «the best-known cyberpunk manifesto,» and nailed the superficial scheme of the genre perfectly:

«Still, how many formulaic tales can one wade through in which a self-destructive but sensitive young protagonist with an (implant/prosthesis/telechtronic talent) that makes the evil (megacorporations/police states/criminal underworlds) pursue him through (wasted urban landscapes/elitc luxury enclaves/eccentric space stations) full of grotesque (hair cuts/clothes/self-mutilations/rock music/sexual hobbies/designer drugs/telechtronic gadgets/nasty new weapons/exteriorized hallucinations) representing the (mores/fashions) of modern civilization in terminal decline, ultimately hooks up with rebellious and tough-talking (youth/artificial intelligence/rock cults) who offer the alternative, not of (community/socialism/traditional values/transcendental vision), but of supreme, life-affirming hipness, going with the flow which now flows in the machine, against the spectre of a world-subverting (artificial intelligence/multinational corporate web/evil genius)?» (Csicsery-Ronay, 1988)

Not stopping at that, thankfully, Csicsery-Ronay have dug deeper—by exploring the tight connection between cyberpunk and postmodernism, he found the genre’s kernel philosophy: «Cyber/punk—the ideal postmodern couple: a machine philosophy that can create the world in its own image and a self-mutilating freedom, that is that image snarling back.» (Csicsery-Ronay, 1988)

Going even further, he have distinguished the new breed of science fiction (cyberpunk included) from an old, a classic one. By defining them implosive and expansive respectively, he argued:

«Expansive SF was based on historical analogies of colonialism and social Darwinism, the power struggles of the old against the new, the ancient against the scientific. The topoi of implosive SF are based on analogies of the invasion and transformation of the body by alien entities of our own making. Implosive science fiction finds the scene of SF problematics not in imperial adventures among the stars, but in the body-physical/body-social and a drastic ambivalence about the body’s traditional-and terrifyingly uncertain-integrity.» (Csicsery-Ronay, 1988)

I understand «body-social» problematic as the relationship between an individual and society, not as «body-social problem» from the field of cognitive science—that term was introduced not less than a couple of decades since Csicsery-Ronay’s piece. Into the definition of «alien entities of our own making» perfectly fits the concept of social constructs—ideas that have been created and accepted by the people in a society, as described by Merriam-Webster.

Thus, cyberpunk, as the genre of implosive sci-fi, critiques (or at least reflects on) the social, cultural, and political structures and how they interact with an individual. As an inherently postmodernist genre, its means of dealing with those themes are expectedly postmodern. In the case of Neofeud, the most distinctly used postmodernist technique of artistic expression is pastiche.

Pastiche is a form of stylistic imitation, an artistic work that builds itself upon other, previous artistic works. Unlike parody, many critics treat pastiche condescendingly—famous literary critic and Marxist theorist Frederic Jameson wrote:

«Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs.» (Jameson, 1991)

On the other hand, other critics manage to find rich artistic potential in pastiche. Ingeborg Hoesterey argues that by consciously acknowledging the archive of cultural tradition and demonstratively borrowing from it, the artist provokes the audience to rethink and reevaluate the past. She calls pastiche emancipatory and argues that it «posts our cultural existence as intertextual and demands our dialogue with the “archive” that modernist positions had needed to dismiss.» (Hoesterey, 1995)

Even considering the demonstrative nature of pastiche, its usage in Neofude is blatant. The game’s visual style looks like cut-out images pasted together into a full-fledged composition and characters animated like paper dolls. Still maintaining the sense of artistic cohesion, Neofeud‘s aesthetic states its foundation on previous works’ archive. But that statement is different from merely standing on the titan’s shoulders—the point is rethinking and even partial deconstruction of the sci-fi’s past.

For example, one of the game characters is an obvious homage to the T-800 model from the Terminator franchise. But instead of an iconic depiction of an efficient and remorseless killing machine, Neofeud presents a wounded and traumatized war veteran that became a cybernetic hippie and doesn’t want anything to do with guns and violence.

That’s not the only Terminator-based pastiche in the game, though. Proto-J, one of the Neofeud‘s main characters, looks like young John Connor from Terminator 2—but as with T-800, the original’s essence is changed. As John Connor, Proto-J is the key to protecting civilization, but not from cybernetic annihilation, quite the opposite—from the human-made system of oppression. Also, he is a robot that is being saved by a human.

Those and many other examples (genius inventor resembles Roy Batty in Blade Runner—creator vs. creation, etc.) can be read as the plea for new sci-fi—contemporary, self-conscious, and critical. It’s also a clear signal for the player—«nothing is as it seems, or as it meant to be, or should it be that way?» That signal is meant to provoke critical thinking and reevaluation of concepts. 

Unfortunately, the message is weakened by an abundance of empty pop-cultural references—lots of name-dropping in dialogues (sometimes exact, sometimes merely recognizable, like Sylvester Warzenegger, etc.), Konami code, clear hint for a puzzle solution based on the scene in the Die Hard movie. On the one hand, such references reduce the distance between the fictional world and reality, helping to contextualize the game’s themes. On the other hand, though, with that oversaturation, several homages become artistically neutralized.

The sound of a dial-up modem among contemporary synths in the soundtrack, for example, can emphasize the «new world—old problems» theme, but among dozens of empty references, it doesn’t get the deserved attention.

Still, the power of pastiche in an inherently postmodernist genre manages to push the message through. «Nothing is as it seems, or as it meant to be, or should it be that way?». That critical mode of thinking, enforced in Neofeud by pastiche, leads to question not only images and themes but also the game mechanic.

Mechanically Neofeud is a throwback to the classical Sierra point-and-click games, like Space Quest V or King’s Quest VI, and follows that design philosophy. Action buttons and an inventory are listed in the top dropdown menu; there are instances with immediate fail-state when the protagonist dies; every item collected has its usage. Sierra adventure games varied broadly in the sense of linearity—Space Quest series were mostly linear, King’s Quest VI allowed certain variability, and Quest for Glory games felt more like point-and-click RPGs. Neofeud sticks with linearity and even doubles down on it.

The game never lets the player traverse between locations freely, there is no slightest variation in puzzle-solving, and the player’s decisions never matter. One of the most dramatic scenes in the game is when the protagonist Karl Carbon, a social worker, сonducts a home inspection of robots’ family. The player gets the choice of whether to act as an empathetic human being, omitting the family’s illegal activities, or be a close-minded bastard, ratting the family out. But no matter the player’s actions, cops come, abduct the family’s baby, and shoot the father in the face. Nothing changes, whatever decision the player makes—same consequences, same cut-scenes, same dialogues.

As I’ve said earlier, Neofeud was developed by one person. It puts limitations on the scope of the game. Nevertheless, that suffocating and depressing linearity bears artistic meaning. Does a mere cog in the system have the slightest choice whether to transmit the received motions? As a mere cog in the system, Karl Carbon decides nothing—he just dragged along the plot both by his boss and by the rebel princess that pushes him on the path of revolt. He is just a tool in the hands of powerful actors. 

It can be just poor writing, but why should I consider something flawed or lacking if it works conceptually? I’ll try to explain what I mean.

Neofeud‘s world is, as the name suggests, neo-feudal. There are serfs and masters, kings in the castles and peasants in the slums, hierarchal division of power. It’s like Middle-ages with spaceships. That concept is not as fictional as it seems to be. Moreover, we may be already there.

Jodi Dean considers neo-feudalism, and not fascism, as the main current threat to democracy: 

«We need to consider how we are not in capitalism anymore, but something worse, neo-feudalism. This does not mean that there are no longer capitalist relations of production and exploitation. It means that the other dimensions of capitalist production – expropriation, domination, and force – have become stronger to such an extent that it no longer makes sense to posit free and equal actors meeting in the labor market even as a governing fiction.» (Dean, 2020)

She characterizes neo-feudalism by four interconnected features: the parcelization of sovereignty, hierarchy and expropriation with new lords and peasants, desolate hinterlands and privileged municipalities, and insecurity and catastrophism.

All of that is evident in the world of Neofeud, which makes it a very insightful game, at least to my eye. But to what conclusion the game’s plot arrives in the end? The rebel princess with a time-bending airship that dragged our protagonist into the silent revolt succeeds in overthrowing her father, effectively taking his place. Karl Carbon replaces his boss, and Proto-J remains Proto-J but far more powerful. There are some hints in the closing dialogues for somewhat positive global changes, but those are basically summed up in a couple of new laws. Laws that seem insignificant, by the way—rich people will have to live among the poor occasionally? Really?

No, Neofeud doesn’t have a happy ending. «Nothing is as it seems, or as it meant to be, or should it be that way?» Princess Sybil carries out a coup that merely shuffles the elites’ line-up without changing in the slightest the overall system structure. That’s why the game mechanics are so limiting; that’s why there is strict linearity to the plot: to emphasize the system limits, to show that you can’t change anything substantially without breaking the rules of play. You can’t win in the arcade without using the Konami code.

That’s the message that I’ve received from playing Neofeud. That’s the reason for my readiness to forgive all of the game’s flaws and shortcomings. That’s why I consider this game significant. The sequel is in the works, and I can’t wait to play it and see how the neo-feudal system is confronted for real this time.

As for one of the theoretical solutions of this confrontation, here is another Jodi Dean’s quote:

«(Rosa) Luxemburg emphasized that imperialism is a feature of capitalism’s need for an outside; capitalism always relies on materials and labor that it does not produce. But what happens when capitalism is global? It turns in on itself, generating, enclosing, and mining features of human life through digital networks and mass personalized media. This reflexivization produces powerlaws, extreme inequality, new lords and serfs, vast fortunes and extreme inequality, and the parcellized sovereignties that secure this inequality while the many wander and languish in the hinterlands. Avoiding this – confronting this – requires organized political struggle for communism.» (Dean, 2020)


Referenced Articles:

Csicsery-Ronay, I. (1988). Cyberpunk and neuromanticism. Mississippi Review, 16(2/3), 266-278.

Dean, J. (2020). Communism or Neo-Feudalism?. New Political Science, 42(1), 1-17.

Hoesterey, I. (1995). Postmodern pastiche: A critical aesthetic. The Centennial Review, 39(3), 493-510.

Jameson, F. (1991). Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism. Duke university press.

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