Review: Death By Game Show

There were a rough couple of years in the middle 1990s when kids my age felt that the height of humor was to repeat catchphrases from Beavis and Butthead, the early Mike Judge cartoon in which two unlovable teenagers riff on metal videos. Beavis and Butthead were never as marketable as Bart’s “Ay Caramba!” and “Don’t have a cow, man” lippiness was during the early seasons of The Simpsons, but the effect on adolescent culture was at least as annoying. Before tired out internet memes were ever invented, we had “I am Cornholio” and “eat my shorts.”

Death By Game Show is nominally a tower-defense style game that says it was “inspired by the movie Idiocracy.” In it, you play a pudgy man in a jumpsuit condemned to die in a game show by the robots who rule in the 26th century. In each level, you’re dropped onto a planet and must spawn droids and structures to fight off waves of enemies, destroy their buildings, and eventually escape in a rocket ship.

It’s a challenging and chaotic game, and the screen quickly fills up with friendly and enemy robots, which each have their own attacks and special abilities. Each level gives you a particular set of robots and structures, some of which attack enemy units, while others boost your robot production capabilities. There are hints of some more casual titles like Swords & Soldiers and Plants vs. Zombies here. Both of these are better games.

The big problem with Death By Game Show is the unending, repetitive, and charmless barrage of what it thinks of as humor. While the game has a pleasingly throwback Futurama-by-way-of-R. Crumb art style, the “jokes” took me right back to those trying years in the ‘90s, when every teenage boy around my age had his own rendition of Beavis’ “Fire! Fire!” quote and could be relied on to bust it out once every 43 seconds.

As I mentioned above, the game is billed as being inspired by Mike Judge films. The missing element here, unfortunately, is any actual inspiration whatsoever. After failing a mission, you return to the game show “set,” where the robot host will quip something like “Say ‘hello’ to Lumburgh’ from me… Cause you just got f*cked!” (Curse words are all thoughtfully bleeped with asterisks, for some reason.)

This of course is a reference to Mike Judge’s Office Space, and is indicative of writers who think that simply repeating a line from a movie you’ve seen is the same thing as making a joke. Office Space is mined for comedy again with quotes about “federal [email protected] [sic] prison” (again, the no-no word is bleeped, which is a strange decision to make mid-rape joke) and when the show host chides you for not watching “your cornhole.” At the end of each level, when the rocket arrives to pick you up, a voice doing a terrible Schwarzenegger impersonation babbles, “Get to the chopper.”

That there is no thematic connection between any of these movie references (I refuse to call them jokes) and the game itself doesn’t seem to have occurred to the developers, who I strongly suspect might have set up their college dorm rooms by taking a high-powered leaf blower though a Hot Topic store and hoping for the best.

And there’s simply no mercy for the player on this front. Failing a level means you’ll have to watch the same failure animation, the same return-to-studio animation, and the same intro animation — if you’re able to steel yourself for another sophomoric avalanche.

There’s no help to be found in the game’s interface, either. The buttons for spawning your droids and buildings are all far away from the action, along the bottom and right-hand side of the screen, so finding these draws your attention away from what’s going on. Charging up a bonus meter lets you spin a prize wheel, which descends from the top of the screen and obscures the action that doesn’t pause in the meantime. The whole affair has the feel of a mobile port, although I suspect that the experience would hardly be improved with a touchscreen.

Perhaps the biggest sin committed by Death By Game Show, though, is the fact that it simply doesn’t understand what makes Mike Judge’s films and television shows funny. Office Space is about the absurdity and alienation of corporate culture, and King of the Hill is about the strange relationships people fall into as part of a family or neighborhood. Death By Game Show boils all of this down to catchphrases and one-off lines, hoping to get a laugh just by pointing at something we once thought was funny.

Humor is a highly subjective thing and I fully concede that there probably is a receptive audience for Death By Game Show’s approach to it. But I can only give you my own impressions of the game. Playing it was a trial for me every time I fired it up – the firehose of outdated pop culture references and toilet humor made me feel like Alex DeLarge undergoing the Ludovico Technique in A Clockwork Orange. Should I ever find myself on stage for a robot game show in the 26th century, I’ll opt for lethal injection instead.

Final Verdict

2/10

Death By Game Show was developed and published by Oointah and released January 22, 2016 for Windows, Mac, and Linux. A review copy was provided by the publisher.