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space funeral is perhaps the ultimate meta videogame.
on the surface the game is a crappy rpgmaker rpg and arguably a crappier horror game. the game all but forgets to be scary beyond the first dungeon, and its recurring motif of blood quickly becomes saccharine comedy, as the game wanders away from any particular horror theme to a game dependent on the whims of it's developer, thecatamites, at any time during development. you can almost tell by the pacing of events that most of the content in the game was decided essentially at the moment it was added in. there is no rhyme or reason why the merchant is a Peanuts character, or the player character can spend half of the game as a fish, or that one of the more lengthy dialogues in the game is an interrogatory conversation about dracula's smoking habits. almost every moment in this game can be explained away as the developer self-indulgently humoring themself as they go.
despite all this, there are clues suggesting a much deeper understanding and intentional, pointed rhetoric behind the 'form' the game takes. its going to take a bit to explain what i mean by this.
space funeral is most often depicted as a contemporary with other horror alt-rpgs of the time: OFF, yume nikki, Lisa, etc. ironically these titles have ended up being the standout successes of the rpgmaker engine, particularly because of how un-rpg they feel. i think its important to understand that the stated intention of space funeral was not to sit among these games, but actually with the rest of the 'less interesting' catalogue from the engine: the hundreds of substandard dragon quest clones it was posted among on rpgmaker.net. you can see the developer in the comments of this game and others debating its purpose with other users. some of it is kind of petty, even. this is a game by and for rpgmaker users. with this lens, many of the abstract or comedic choices the game makes begin to take on some clarity.
the moment you open the game it should be immediately clear you are playing an rpgmaker game. this is something the game expects of the players: the traditional new/load/end game buttons have all been customized to just read 'blood'. its not difficult to intuit what you should press to start, and the game knows you know this, which is why its freely able to modify its UI the way it does.
space funeral makes a point to showcase all the features packed in rpgmaker, while simultaneously making them feel pointless. a circle of wizards in the starting town of the game explain a complicated elemental weakness system in enemies. the protagonist, phillip, has a custom action in combat that has a myriad of random effects. despite this, combat in the game is painfully simple - most enemies are defeated in a few hits, and you can truthfully spam attack for every fight. the engine's boat/airship function is used in an entirely linear section of the game which could have easily been another plain or forest map. All the classical rpg elements are there. You go from town to town, collecting incrementally better equipment and fighting slightly tougher enemies. the only section of the game where it feels like gameplay was intentionally injected was the pyramid where you have to dodge mummy npcs through the hallways. each town has a 'church' where you may go to rest and regain full health, the sprite for which is a coffin which already has another copy of your body in it. Everything you can think of in an rpg exists in this game, functionally, but in this unrecognizable form.
you can close your eyes and play this game like its any other bog standard little final fantasy. try as it might to feel different, this is exactly the type of game it's toolset coaxes users into making. at a fantastic arcade presentation, thecatamites describes working with rpgmaker as an almost autopilot process: you start your passion project like any other, by placing a few grass tiles, then some trees - an hour later you are somehow building yet another sewer dungeon.
really the only things the engine allows you to customize are graphics and music. most of the graphics are scribbled in. tilesets do not repeat textures properly. assets are colored in with blood, or skulls, or otherwise goofy angry faces. its obviously not pleasant but importantly it's expressive; it sells the tone of the game well. the music is maybe the most genuine look at the developer of the game (within it's own text here) - it's sampled from various bands and radio broadcasts, small acts the developer clearly has a taste for. it does kind of feel like trying to 'show off', which is fine, but its also about one bauhaus or joy division track from me wanting to shove it in a locker.
all of it is so abrasive. the game seems to want you to spend time considering its aesthetics. why is everything so stupid. the characters are all mean to you. there is clearly some joke at the expense of the player. these days it's easier to revel in these abstract indie games. but i also remember a time where my understanding of free indie games was limited to happy wheels, and stumbling into games like a closed world, or triad laughing at the audacity that someone would make these games that don't even make sense and aren't fun. i am mostly glad that the net has come around on this, but i think its important to think about for the context of this game, as the type of player the game might be concerned with subverting here. the player character, phillip, sort of has a goal which i think mirrors that mindset in which he needs to go to the city of forms and change or 'fix' all of these things about the world. the game's antagonist, moon (a sort of stand in for thecatamites), has been faced with the same situation but only sees futility in it: moon has come to understand what this perfect version of the world is supposed to be, but it's too perfect. only shoddy copies can be made. so rather than fulfill this goal, it decides to distort everything completely. this is why the game is the way it is.
so what is the game about. ultimately when you defeat moon and accomplish your goals you are faced with stock assets from rpgmaker, the RTP (runtime package). what the game posits about the RTP is that its representative of this platonic ideal of the JRPG: a fictional game aspirational to many users that is ultimately unachievable. rpgmaker gives you the tools, sets the precedent for what to make, but leaves it up to the player to execute that vision. space funeral is making the argument here that when you act in your own vision you are poisoned by the medium you inhabit, but when you act in the vision of this 'ideal' the work will still exhibit your own hubris. there is a sort of nihilism to this. and i think at the time it comes from a lot of frustration at the surrounding community of users, who maybe were thought to have been wasting talent or potential on something they are only being suggested to do.
so largely this game is an argument for other developers to spend more time 'coming into themselves'. i think in some ways this point is self reflection on previous work and maybe other insecurities from thecatamites too. but the blatant cynicism of it here is not entirely something i agree with. at play here is an excellent understanding of what it means to use tools, and how they challenge and direct developers in certain directions. but i don't think there is as much interrogation of why the developers may choose to go one path or another with their projects, and it largely results in a lot of "why isn't everyone else like me"isms.
hobbyists make games for wildly different reasons. thecatamites clearly understands it's easy to fall into a pattern using this tool, but doesn't seem to recognize what is also valuable about that. there's a sort of catharsis in placing trees in your village and goblins in your haunted woods, and remembering the dumb names you gave your team in final fantasy 3. space funeral and these games it argues against are all self indulgent in their own ways, which kind of makes it moot to complain that one way is more 'fulfilling' than others.
i think space funeral ended up getting caught in the middle of a larger cultural shift of the attitudes behind indie games. generally in the 2000s if you made videogames outside the industry you were already pretty technically minded, and when like minded developers did meet, they'd try to create spaces. while rpgmaker has existed since then it was only popular in some spaces of the net, and fewer people were recreationally using their pcs for this kind of thing. space funeral's rhetoric is tied very closely with the site it came from. i think with the movement of indie game spaces from places like tigsource to more open social places like twitter and later discord show a lot about the changes to mentality surrounding indie development. more, easier tools have become available, and developers today are having a lot more 'fun' making games, though of course 'serious art' still exists too. in 2010 a game like space funeral could classify as dada, or at least low brow, but today just as easily file in with other 'meme' games too. because what is a meme, other than a set form that is meant to be followed, but also undermined for extra humor. im not sure what thecatamites would have to say about this take.
does the platonic jrpg actually exist? can it be made? probably not, but space funeral is quite possibly the most rpgmaker a videogame can be.

This game is so beautiful. Wow. What a way to wrap up the Xenoblade trilogy.

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