Kevin (erf_) wrote,

in soviet unterzoegersdorf, game play you

Two great events at Babycastles yesterday: a screening of GET LAMP and a presentation on Soviet Unterzoegersdorf. GET LAMP is an excellent, well-researched, and surprisingly financially successful set of documentary films on the text-adventure / interactive fiction genre by filmmaker and Internet historian Jason Scott, who also did BBS: The Documentary and runs I have little more to say about it other than that it is comprehensive, cleverly shot, and true to the source material, and that I highly recommend it.

Soviet Unterzoegersdorf, on the other hand, warrants a little more exposition.

In the early 2000s, notorious Austrian art group monochrom decided to have a little fun with the spirit of Ostalgie (nostalgia for the Soviet era), the cultural whiplash from the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union a decade earlier. monochrom founder Johannes Grenzfurthner, having been born well after the USSR ceded East Austria in 1955, realized he knew nothing about the Soviet occupation of his hometown, the tiny rural hamlet of Unterzoegersdorf, aside from the hyperbolic, implausibly demonic stories his grandmother had told him when he was young. He was curious about that era, but the older generation was unwilling to talk. (Considering the shame of Anschluss followed by ten years of Soviet annexation, could anyone blame them? As Grenzfurthner himself put it, "We Austrians are known for two things: Classical music and mass murder.") Leave the past behind, they said. No one wants to remember Soviet Unterzoegersdorf.

Grenzfurthner, iconoclast that he was, would not let the subject go. So he and the rest of monochrom came up with an idea absolutely brilliant in its obviousness: They booked tours.

Dressed as Soviet officials, replete with bearskin hats, beige trenchcoats, and chestfuls of medals, monochrom members invited curious Viennese to two-day bus tours of Soviet Unterzoegersdorf. In an experience Grenzfurthner described as "an incredibly elaborate LARP," monochrom collected and stamped real-life passports (without which would-be tourists were turned away), passed them through a fake customs booth, and led them through the village. Claiming that, due to a technicality, Unterzoegersdorf was never ceded to Western powers and was now the last remaining state of the Soviet Union, monochrom constructed an elaborate alternate history for visitors by pointing out cultural, historical, and technological landmarks.

The group conjured up public works, fictional battles, fake statues, local inventions (including a wood-burning Tetris machine called Hyper Hegel), grandiloquently spinning tales of Soviet ambition and introducing bewildered townsfolk as national heroes. The constructed historical narrative became increasingly convoluted as the tours went on, drawing the attention of the Vienna art press and even some journalists from abroad.

Before long, the number of "tourists" signed up for a single tour was almost ten times the population of the village. Local police were called--apparently the call went something along the lines of "help, the Soviets are invading again!"--and, seeing that it was a joke, they decided not to intervene. But monochrom could not in good conscience do the tours anymore, as they were worried they would disrupt the lives of the inhabitants of the real Unterzoegersdorf. At the same time, they did not want to disappoint the hundreds of people who had signed up for their next tour.

So they did the next best thing: They made a video game.

As many players have noted, the Soviet Unterzoegersdorf game is everything an artifact from an alternate history Soviet country should be. It anachronistically combines a dead genre (the Roberta Williams-style point-and-click adventure game) with an outmoded graphical style from half a decade later (live-action photo sprites). It's in 640x480 resolution. Contemporary renditions of Soviet propaganda songs, edited to sound as if they were being played on a World War II-era phonograph machine, comprise the soundtrack. Clever English and German dialogue is paired with harsh, droning Russian voiceover. A group of Slayer fans from a neighboring town are treated as an enemy state. The writing is hilarious, the puzzles are clever, the photography and animation are so depressing they're absurd. It feels very, very foreign, clearly a product of another time and another place--a witty, sardonic commentary on a culture that never existed.

Or did it?

What makes Soviet Unterzoegersdorf so thought-provoking is that it is so over the top in its satire. By building the game on the horror-story Soviets Grenzfurthner was told about in his youth, and stretching the hyperbole as far as it could go, monochrom compelled their fellow Austrians to realize the absurdity of their perception of the Soviet era and inspired a curiosity for the truth. We laugh when we see Commissar Chrusov walk across town in an uncomfortable stiff-backed pose, his arms menacingly folded behind his back, as if he's so used to life as a tight-assed military officer that the Soviet march has replaced his everyday gait. We know the real Soviets in Unterzoegersdorf probably didn't walk that way. But if not, how did they walk? What did they eat? How did they live, what did they believe? What else did they leave this seemingly insignificant little hamlet that made the inhabitants so eager to bury their legacy?

I asked Grenzfurthner, who was explaining all this with the deranged, brilliant irreverence of a true European art subversive, if his grandmother, whose stories had been the inspiration for the project, had played his game. Grenzfurthner scratched his chin. "I don't know," he said. "She played the first chapter, and then she died. In real life."

"But my grandfather loves it," he hastily added.

What's more, the rest of real-life Unterzoegersdorf has taken an interest in the project. (There's more information about Soviet Unterzoegersdorf on the Internet, after all, than there is on the real Unterzoegersdorf!) One night Grenzfurthner was drinking out in the town and six or seven old farmers recognized him from the game. They told him they hadn't thought much about the Soviet occupation since it ended, but that the game had gotten them thinking about it again. They spent all night drinking with him and telling him stories about life under the occupation, the real Soviet Unterzoegersdorf, and Grenzfurthner says it was one of the most memorable nights of his life.

What happens when a game like this is released? A bunch of people share the link on Boingboing. A silly Cheetos viral is made. A couple thousand Americans and a couple thousand Russians download the game and have a laugh at each other's expense. A crazy Austrian entertains a dozen gamers at a lecture in a Manhattan art gallery. And a little village in Austria remembers who it was.

This, my friends, is the power of art.

Monochrom also does Nazi Petting Zoos, where actors in Nazi costumes stand in fenced-off areas in Vienna streets so passersby can pet and take touristy pictures of them. They have also presented art at galleries under the constructed persona of Georg Paul Thomann (who courageously saved Taiwan from non-representation at the 2002 Sao Paula Art Biennial), organized the "Six Feet Under Club" where people have sex in buried coffins, and run the "Arse Elektronica" sex and technology conference. I am looking forward to seeing more of their work.

You can learn more about Soviet Unterzoegersdorf (and download the first two episodes of the adventure game) here. Yes, that is a ".su" (Soviet Union) top-level domain prefix.

(Crossposted to Standard Doubt, which has a more lenient commenting policy. Hello, monochrom blog readers.)
Tags: art, games, history, politics

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