“Two Michaels enter. One Michael leaves.”
That’s the tag line for Michael E Michael, a game starring two dueling Michael Jackson avatars lifted from the Moonwalker arcade game, equipped with the power to shoot dance moves, lasers, and release a cavalcade of mini-Michaels — just like the King of Pop himself. This magnificent creation was designed by new media artist Aaron Meyers for this year’s iteration of the annual game jam that leads up to curated indie showcase Fantastic Arcade, part of Fantastic Fest. “Their game jams come with a lot of rules and constraints, which I think makes it an extra compelling creative challenge,” says Meyers.
The theme this year is “DUPLICADE,” which means that designers were supposed to infringe on the intellectual property of some other video game — as well as incorporating the sub-theme of “twins.” Meyers opted for an easily downloadable game for Mac or PC, controlled by two sets of hotkeys that enable players to pit one Moonwalker-era Michael against another for an old-school arcade-style battle. Meyers was able to draw a lot of inspiration for the sound effects from this super-weird supercut of every Michael Jackson grunt ever, which inveterate MJ fans like myself can enjoy trying to pair to their original sources. Unless the heavy-breathing interludes start to make you uncomfortable, which they probably will.
“The idea of pillaging in some way from an existing video game was especially appealing to me because I’ve done a few projects in the past where I repurposed video game graphics in different ways,” says Meyers. “The MJ graphics [in Michael E Michael] come from Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, the arcade version — an important distinction because it’s an isometric-style game, whereas the Sega Genesis version was strictly 2D side-scrolling. I distinctly remember my first encounter with the arcade game. Also, my childhood video store had designated the Moonwalker movie as a free rental, so I watched that movie many times as a kid. Basically what I’m trying to say is that my connection to Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker runs deep.”
Meyers’s past feats of brilliance have included 3frames, a gif-maker he developed in 2010–11 that preceded the preponderance of now common internet tools and developed a community following before issues surrounding the URL led to the site’s dismantling; Torrent Raiders, a data visualization–based game that was also his MFA thesis project at the USC School of Cinematic Arts; and Generative Studies for Laser Cutter, an experimental series that draws some of Meyers’s digital work into the analogue world of etched plywood, via interactions with the laser cutter during his fellowship at Eyebeam.
“I’ve done a few projects in the past where I repurposed video game graphics in different ways. There are a bunch of sites on the internet hosting thousands of sprite sheets ripped out of old video games, and I used to love playing around with them. Years ago, I took all these sprites from Mortal Kombat 3 and put them into this piece of software I used when VJing, where I could control these different scenes I’d arranged. And later I took this looping gif made by Paul Robertson and remapped the individual frames of it to NASA’s topographical LIDAR data of the moon to create a massive image where the source material can only be gleaned from a detail view. But somehow I’d never made an actual game with any of this stuff.”
There is something for everyone in Meyers’s work — even confirmed luddites like myself — due to his extraordinary ability to synthesize mechanical process, new gadgets, data visualization, music, and gaming culture. The range of references and sources he draws together for a single project is astonishing, and with “gamification” emerging as the new buzzword around job skills training, Meyers is far ahead of the game. As Clarke’s third law puts it, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and at times Meyers is so advanced in his that he’s nearly unintelligible to the layperson. Luckily, though, the game itself keeps it right on my level: two Michaels enter, one Michael leaves. Even I can do that math. May the best Michael win.
Aaron Meyers’s Michael E Michael was made for the game jam Duplicade. Public voting on entries continues until October 1.