Middens, by John Clowder, is considered a quintessential RPG Maker game, throwing players into a collage world that’s almost sandboxy in letting you run around to talk to people and kill whoever for the sake of a talking revolver. It was a game that I loved, even though it lacked any real story. Then it turned out its creator was a bit of a creep.
The Endless Empty, by Erik Sheader, fills the space that Middens used to take in my heart, while filling in its narrative flaws.
Normally, I don’t like to compare games to other games too much, but also, Middens does not deserve nice things and I’d like to point to an alternative for it.
In The Endless Empty, you are a manifestation of identity in the dying thoughts of a song writer that committed suicide. Teaming up with Trigger Finger, the neuron that willed the finger that pulled the trigger, you travel through the surrealistic, fragmented mindscape of your host, gathering a crew of powerful aspects of his mind while Death stalks you in hopes of finding escape – or at least, proper closure.
This world manifests in a collage art style, sprites and environments strung together with cut up images. Each world sticks to a general theme with their worlds. The first realm of Anxiety is mainly green and black, having a pop-art feel to its world while the realm of Logic utilizes diagrams and scientific looking images and is all blue, the color of smart people in pop culture for some reason. Having a general theming to the contents of the visuals of each world grants a sort of cohesiveness that makes the game feel like a unified vision instead of just a bunch of stuff thrown together.
Playing through the game, I felt a lot of uncomfortable things. Throughout the imagined forms of the dying host’s memories and thoughts, there’s a lot of things that I related to. The game deals with the existential threat of death and the baggage that comes with it. The game is the fear of living in a capitalist system and the anxiety over not being able to do anything about it. The game is the fear of dying a nobody, with no one to love and nothing to leave your mark on the world.
The Endless Empty is not just a collage world where you wander around to hear weird and funny things, it’s a world that reflects our fears. The game’s humor may take the sting away, but I felt connected to the host character’s existential fears and how they manifested. It’s a game that actually has a general theme instead of a bunch of nonsense that gets retconned into a story about gun control at the very end.
As such, Anxiety is the best character in the game. I love you and feel solidarity with you, you funky little shadow creature.
That said, there was one world that I had a problem with, which was the Anger arc. While the other worlds feels like they reflect the game’s themes and setting, I really couldn’t figure out what Anger represented. It just kinda seemed to be about the general idea of wrath instead of how wrath manifested in the life of the host. He could have been filled with self-loathing over his lot in life, or feel hate toward the woman he loved ditching him to pursue her own career, or self-loathing over recognizing his own entitlement and obsession. I might be missing something, but I still feel that this could be better presented in a way that wasn’t “anthropods and lizards are stuck in a forever war against each other.”
I think part of my problem was that the chapter before that, Logic, felt like a more proper penultimate chapter. The stuff that happens toward the end of the Logic arc, without getting into spoilers, has some character arc stuff that would feel appropriate if the Logic world was the climactic one… but then the game keeps on going. Anger felt like an interruption to the story’s flow and felt weaker for it. Ideally, I’d like to switch the Logic and Anger arcs, because while Anger sets up the finale of the game, it does not have the narrative satisfaction the previous arc provided.
Throughout the game you throw down against bad thoughts and memories in standard RPG Maker battles. Your character is a designated attacker, Trigger Finger is a dedicated healer while everyone else shuffles through roles. Your character and Trigger Finger are fixtures while you can arrange who gets to be in your third slot in the dedicated safe rooms across the mindscape. As your other party members are former bosses, their movesets consist of weaker versions of the shit they pulled on you, which is a maddening but understandable trope. Honestly though, until the end of the game, I stuck with Anxiety as a party member. They have a damage over time skill, which is handy, and as I said, I feel solidarity with the fella.
The game is generally balanced until you run into enemies that can hit the whole group. Group attacks are unusually strong, which wouldn’t be a big deal if their AI didn’t seem to do it randomly. For a time I was stuck on a mandatory fight in Creativity because the encounter just kept spamming their dumb butterfly move to repeatedly destroy me. Maybe make these attacks happen on a turn basis to give players some breathing room.
As for the music of the game, it’s actually an original soundtrack, so songs tailor fit the game’s mood. While there isn’t really any stand-out tracks to me, the game’s music generally fits where it’s going. You got some rock mixed with noise for the Anxiety chapter (which kinda had this idea of punk rock being appropriated by corporate interests), classical music for Creativity, harsh noise for Anger, etc. While the battle themes were eh to me (though they fit the frantic fever dream vibe the battles give off), the boss themes had a more climactic feel. I particularly like the final boss theme, because it has this somber mood that I feel ends the games perfectly.
There are actually multiple endings to the game, based on what form your character takes. As it turns out, a whole bunch of your choices throughout the game actually does mean something, changing your sprite and the ending sequence a bit. I unfortunately don’t have the time to pursue other endings, but I appreciate that it’s there.
I generally had a good time with the Endless Empty, though its penultimate arc really slows down the momentum. Even then though, it was the good parts of Middens combined with an actual narrative, so I really hope that this supplants that game in the collective memory of weird RPG Maker game culture.