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Happiness is a warm gun.

(Warning: this review is vast, and its denizens include some spoilers.)

Middens is the sort of game that is not meant to be "played" so much as it is to be experienced.

It is impossible to talk about Middens without devoting most of the space to its breathtaking artwork. The art in this game - and the world which is made out of it - is not so much "absurd" as it is, in the creator's own words, a collage in which incongruous elements are mixed together in ways that range from the quaint to the hauntingly grotesque. This is not a game where you roam through forests, dungeons and cities while battling bats and demons. Every single battle in this game (and I'm coming to that later, I promise!) features adversaries that are extraordinary in the literal sense of the word: bizarre machines, guitars that pluck their own strings, man-machine hybrids and cats missing half of their outer covering are just four of the encounters you'll have.

If this makes Middens sound like a surreal trip through Wackyworld along the lines of Space Funeral, though, think again. The world of Middens, again quoting the creator, is an inter-dimensional rift (simply called "The Rift" in the game), arising from the collapse of a previous world or civilization. While some aspects of the Rift seem totally divorced from the world we are familiar with, others will invoke an eerie sense of deja vu.

The world maps reflect this sense of dislocation and semi-unreality: there are unespected perspective changes, sudden portions that are rendered in quasi-3D, and even changes in the size of the player character, as if he, like Alice, has fallen down a particularly bizarre rabbit hole. A strange, hippie-like "love bus" can be used to access different portions of the Rift, and the save points take the weirdness of OFF's Batter and multiply it a thousand-fold. Even if there was little or no gameplay involved, you could spend a good deal of time feasting your eyes on the visuals alone.

But Middens isn't an art exhibition - it's a game. It's a game that knows that it might disturb some players, which is why you're given three chances (yes, three) to back out right at the beginning. Our guide through this phantasmagorical landscape is a talking revolver (yes, you read that right) who periodically provides you with information, not all of which is necessarily accurate. According to your friend the gun, the Rift needs to be "purified" - and by purified, yes, we do mean that its inhabitants have to be shot down.

The gameplay invokes RPG tropes without ever coming off as stereotyped. You have three "allies" (Om, Lam and Yam - a brilliant "collage" of names in themselves, starting with a sacred syllable and ending with a sweet potato ^_^) who can be summoned during combat. Of these, Yam is the party's secret weapon: he can inflict status effects that are often the key to winning harder battles. While the idea of buffing, inflicting statuses and using a weapon are hardly new, no one playing through a few of Middens' battles would find them familiar to standard RPG fare. You can choose whether to fight or not, and whom you want to take on. There are worm-like power-ups to be found, secret passages to be uncovered....and it's not likely you'll exhaust this game's possibilities in a single playthrough. Each opponent you slaughter adds to your total of "Nothings", a game statistic that can affect the ending you get.

At the end of the game, the Nomad has to confront his friend the gun itself (there are some hints that its gender is female, but the creator wisely leaves that question open), who reads him a twisted philosophical riot act before engaging him in combat. While the gun's screed can be read in various ideological ways, it is deliberately ambiguous enough that the player is free to interpret it as he wishes.

And this is where Middens earns its artistic spurs. There are plenty of "art games" which cannot resist the temptation to deliver heavy-handed messages at the end, and they are the poorer for it. Such inclusions reflect a failure of confidence (or nerve, to borrow a Middens term) on the part of the author, because art, to be art, cannot come with a built-in set of Cliff's Notes. Middens resists this temptation, and is all the better for it. To simply see Middens as pro-gun, or anti-video game violence, or nihilistic, or based on Eastern spirituality, or as telling the tale of a killing spree that ended in suicide, is to miss the point. It is all of those things and none of them at the same time. Middens is the antithesis, and the antidote, to cultural trash such as Hatred. While the latter deliberately tries to shock and offend and ends up sounding like a whiny adolescent in need of some tough love, Middens leaves you with a sense of wonder and loss even though it is fundamentally a game about shooting and slaughtering whatever you feel like. (And at the end, when the author tells you his real name and thanks you for playing, the fourth wall that has been chipped away throughout the game is suddenly rebuilt. Talk about a perspective shift.)

The final rating I'm giving here is subjective, and I realize that this game will not be to all tastes. There may also be some who object to the intrusion of "RPG stuff" into what should have been a more exploration-based game, but you can't please everyone. It is hard to blaze a trail, and perfection is an ideal rather than a realistic goal, but I think John Clowder can give himself a huge pat on the back for creating this work. As I said at the beginning, it has to be experienced.