Rumbling out of the dingy nightclubs and bars of a nocturnal New York City easing into the early 1980s, the no wave artistic scene offered a perversion of Debbie Harry and David Byrne, rebuking new wave music at large with a nihilistic criticism bordering on parody.
Yet the no wave artists never pigeonholed themselves into easy definitions, instead producing protective walls of brash noise and unyielding sonic textures that resisted outsiders from entering and any clear interpretation. What the scene produced was a frenzied cultural cacophony of after hours discord and chaos that defined the brazen “No” in no wave, resistant to the commercialized pop trappings of new wave in favour of slamming synthesizers and the decidedly piercing feedback of electric guitars like the crunch of steel through a saw blade, rough and confrontational. Artists conjured the no wave spirit by way of an embryonic electric drone, oozing out of primordial soup mixed with alcoholic tonic and hallucinatory ardor. Musicians like Lydia Lunch with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, James Chance and the Contortions, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon with Sonic Youth, Swans, Mars, DNA, and Foetus all channeled this loosely sketched out but aggressively realized ethos as a means to express the grime and repulsiveness of a nightmarish city, both alluring and nauseating at the same time.
The enigmatic paroxysms of this oddball artistic scene is skillfully translated in No Wave, a point-and-click adventure short game authored in 48 hours for Game Dev Party Jam 6 by a collective of developers including Dorian SRed, Trevor Reveur, Simon Chanut, Christophe Roth, and Franz&Chouche. Their tenebrous recollection of the grimy downtown backdrop of no wave is something of a magpie, playfully evoking familiar sounds and images in simulacrum of a bygone artistic scene and perverting a CBGB-esque post-punk landscape with the besmirched flavoring of this transgressive culture. Dorian SRed and company brew an intoxicating blend of stimuli, throwing together spectral revelry and funereal crooning in a murky club that suggests the scene’s indistinct ephemerality and a general malaise with a commercialized music industry.
The game offers an artistic statement that seeks a hazy explanation of this dim, seedy venue: You are Jim, a man from Brooklyn. You discover the underground life of New York. Someone told you to go out, but you’re asking “Why?”. And the answer is: “Life is in the streets, in music, not only in your flat”. You decide to visit one of these clubs known for their wild side. They are repulsive but attractive in many aspects. So there you are, ready to try anything.
This push-pull tension between repulsion and attraction lies at the heart of both the game and the no wave scene in general. No Wave may bear the name of a transgressive, reactionary artistic scene seeking to destabilize the established order of things, but the game itself lacks the nihilistic ethos of its 1980s pioneers. The game decidedly takes on a distanced viewpoint in 2014 as it looks backwards in time, altering the initial nihilism into a playful tribute to the eccentricities of the scene. No Wave toys with our collective identification and memory of this artistic scene to produce laughs, transforming the old, gritty New York City from an unwelcoming bastion of criminality and sleaze into a playful world of non-sequitur humor and retro video game styling. Rather than reject the established tastes of contemporary video game culture or aspire for dissonance out of step with a burgeoning underground gaming landscape, No Wave locates the potential to express an often overlooked artistic subculture in new and interesting ways, offering a peculiar and lighthearted take on an otherwise nihilistic and anarchic scene.
Like its titular artistic zeitgeist, No Wave places emphasis on jagged textural substance over narrative and stylistic fluidity. In lieu of offering a clearly marked trail of narrative breadcrumbs, No Wave invites players to tease out meaning from its maniacal imagery and sparse gameplay. Jim, like the player, enters an underground no wave club as a stranger open to new experiences even it means slipping into the kind of sordid back alley venue that promises a night of sinful recklessness. The bouncer offers red or green “candy,” hallucinogens that alter your experience interacting with the handful of things within the club and informing the overall aesthetic in a feverish trance of effervescent lights and color.
The game’s pulse of green, red, and yellow lights focalized through an intoxicated perspective induces the work of cinematographer Benoît Debie in Enter the Void or Spring Breakers, envisaging a nightclubbing world of surreal, glowing interiors that nonetheless has the power to nauseate. In addition, the retro styling and third person perspective of interior spaces evokes the equally pulse-pounding game Hotline Miami, especially in No Wave’s bizarre black void that represents the outside world. Jim seems to materialize from non-existence as the game starts, contributing to the increasingly illusory world conjured in this game. Indeed, it’s in this dialectic between cinematic styling and No Wave’s retro pixel aesthetic that informs this game, crafting a unique experience that recalls the lo-fi work of filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch or Abel Ferrara with their grimy early filmmaking informed by a punk ethos. No Wave filters this influence through the pixel glitch of retro video games, matching the markedly stripped down graphics with the static crackling of the surface image and the discord of electric guitar feedback.
Most interestingly, No Wave shares intimate kinship with Stephen “increpare” Lavelle’s 2012 game Slave of God, that other pulsating nightclub game less interested in guiding the player towards an immediate trajectory and more keen on the orgiastic ecstasy of sensory shock. No Wave and Slave of God even offer the chance to piss in a dingy restroom to boot. While Slave of God favors the delivery of electrifying stimuli over No Wave’s more accessible bearings, the latter game still involves a similar sleepwalker daze as you traverse the club seemingly bound to hallucinatory repetition and endless non-exits. There may yet be a means to succeed in this game somewhere within its bizarre framework, but I’m perfectly happy with my non-sequitur endings. Whether Jim disrupts the band or gets knocked senseless by an annoyed bar patron into the next night’s outing, No Wave remains a playfully blithe and confidently relaxed short game.
That’s not to say that No Wave lacks thematic substance or greater artistic purpose, just that this impish game prefers to frolic in the annals of music history rather than take on an overly pious reverence for a scene defined by its irreverence. For fans of no wave culture and its influential stamp on music history, No Wave stands as an agreeable tribute to the time, inviting us to take a step back and appreciate a scene that pined for endless artistic possibility. For those simply interested like Jim and “ready to try anything,” No Wave is a wholly singular work that’s onto something great, asking only to let the music wash over you.