de Blob and the Fun in the Fight

Lindsay Eanet is a Chicago-based writer, editor and performer. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Paste, Howler, Chicago Magazine and others. She is the host & producer of I’ll Be There for You, a biweekly podcast about pop culture and coping. But enough about her, let’s talk about you. Follow Lindsay on Twitter

I’ve played through the first level of de Blob more than any other game, on any console, at any time during my gaming life. More than Mario, more than Zelda, more than Master Chief, this little impish orb with eyes has been my constant since I was first introduced to the game by my girlfriend (now wife) in 2012. I was instantly enamored with the 2008 cult hit’s simple, accessible mechanics (optimal for a casual gamer like me), bright colors, catchy music and ostensibly social justice-y plot.

de Blob is a puzzle-platformer, originally released in 2008, wherein you use your character, Blob, a colorful, chaotic being, to paint the world around you. Each color pairs with a different instrument in the game’s jazzy, inspired soundtrack; power-ups are available throughout the world to wash you in even more patterns and eye-catching styles. There are extra lives, and baddies you have to body-slam, and challenges you have to complete, like so many puzzle-platformers of yore. The “ostensibly social justice-y” bit comes with the plot. Blob, who would rather spend his days napping in his jungle home, witnesses a corporate authoritarian dictatorship led by the nefarious INKT take over nearby Chroma City. INKT enslaves the local population, the Raydians, sucking all the color and fun out of the area and replacing it with inky pollution. Blob links up with the Color Underground, a ragtag resistance group of similarly-shaped blobs, to save the city and its residents, and restore color and peace to all.

When I saw that de Blob was getting a Nintendo Switch re-release, I was ready to take that nostalgic swan-dive. The format, plot and level structures are identical to the 2008 original, so adjusting to a new system felt more like sliding into an oversized, puff-painted sweatshirt. But the game hadn’t changed; the world around me had.

It feels impossible to replay de Blob in 2019 without making countless rapid-fire connections between the cartoon plight of Chroma City and our own messy, colorful, poisoned world. Even the most innocuous of games, one with the most casual-friendly, accessible mechanics and chirping rainbow beans with faces, is packed with moments that feel so strongly analogous to the real world. Anyone who tells you that video games exist in a vacuum, devoid of meaning, is probably trying to sell you something. As I played, the game I thought I knew so well, so much that I hummed along to the Tropicália-tinged music of the first level and could tell you exactly which stack of grey boxes once housed the iconic Raydian jazz clubs, began to feel like many different games.

It’s a game that started as a design project by a handful of University of Utrecht students trying to design a future city hub, with a cute little mascot and a paint function. It’s a game about painting and beating up little cartoon alien cops. A game about leaving your comfort zone, the tree in which you’d rather be napping, to fight the forces of oppression when the world calls upon you to do so, and having a great time along the way. A game about being cheeky and irreverent and fun when faced with faceless monsters with rocket launchers.

But it’s also a game about corporate greed and gentrification siphoning the life out of cities and their inhabitants. The animated sequence of INKT draining the bright color from Chroma City and replacing it with drab uniformity calls to mind real-life urban analogues—the whitewashing, literal and figurative, of iconic Brooklyn graffiti hub 5 Pointz; the controversial painting-over of Chicago’s “Casa Aztlán” mural by a real estate developer, contributing to existing tensions over rapid gentrification, displacement and cultural erasure in the Pilsen neighborhood (the developer later apologized and hired the original muralist to repaint the building). As a Chicago resident, it’s impossible to ignore the realities of increasing rents, social stratification, and racial and economic segregation exacerbated by a city that prioritizes a wealthy few and visitors over the pressing needs of many of its communities. (As someone who is young(ish), white and middle class, I realize I am likely complicit myself in this, and try to correct the balance by advocating for affordable housing in my city and neighborhood, supporting long-standing local businesses, etc.) Playing de Blob in my apartment in my quiet, not-quite-gentrified-yet neighborhood, is a colorful reminder to be mindful, even at play, about the impact our actions have on our communities.

I think about the promises my hometown made to Amazon to try to court a second headquarters, how many resources that could help the most vulnerable would likely go to one company. How many cities across America, across the world, are dealing with something similar eating at their innards. Seattle, a city I also love dearly, has grappled with this exact problem for years—Amazon investment has created a canyon between extreme poverty and wealth, and as rents rise, more residents are displaced, and Seattle now boasts the country’s third-highest unhoused population. Amazon’s influence even led to the repeal of a small tax meant to help address the city’s homelessness problem. When large, corporate interests dictate the interests of cities, the investment looks good on paper, but often the people experience harm. In the cartoon world of de Blob, the Raydians are forced into tenements, ink flooding the streets, at the will of the evil corporation.

But also it’s a game about environmental catastrophe and its inherent ties to authoritarianism and colonization. In the prologue for the seventh level, the Professor, the group’s ringleader, details to Blob that INKT has turned the Hanging Gardens, a sacred site of Raydian civilization, into an ink treatment plant, desecrating this culturally significant landmark and turning the water supply toxic. The Hanging Gardens level comes at a pivotal point in the game’s threadbare plot—this egregious violation of Raydian land and culture is what galvanizes the everyday citizens to join the rebellion and march. It was the first time I considered the lore of that particular element of the game, and it conjured images of the grassroots resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would poison the water supply and run through areas sacred to the Lakota and Dakota tribes who lived nearby. The world of de Blob is without tents and banners and horses, instead full of ink and marked-up billboards, but the message is the same—corporations and authoritarian governments will work hand in hand to reject culture and endanger lives for the sake of profit, and we have to show up for folks who have been historically disenfranchised and terrorized by these patterns, with art or otherwise.

I still play de Blob the way I play most video games—to relax, to lose myself in a fantasy world for an hour or two, to keep my brain and my hands occupied long enough to quell my anxiety so “The Work” feels manageable again, to be soothed by the process of bringing together amorphous colors and shapes and patterns. And now, in this most recent replay, I find myself even more drawn to the pleasure of the game’s tasks. I lean into the dopamine-hit satisfaction of painting a blue wall or freeing a passel of Raydians from their cells, each whooping with glee as their color is restored. I play around with colors and textures to hear each instrument they’re connected to in the lush, evolving soundtrack—blue for bluesy guitar licks, red for saxophone noodling, turntable scratches when de Blob mixes all three primary colors to create an earthy brown. I’ve spent hours on each challenge, each tree, even reaching to paint the Color Underground blimp that sails through each level.

I think I understand what the game is about now. de Blob is a game about incorporating play and joy into organizing, about remembering to have fun in the fight.

In the world of de Blob, play and creativity, amplified by vibrant colors and patterns, are the key tools to fighting oppression. With one mighty heave of his paint-spackled mass, Blob turns drab propaganda billboards into wild, sparkling street art creations, prisons into community sports centers, the act of play and joy begetting more spaces of play and joy. At one point, a statue of the Inky dictator, the wholly originally-named Comrade Black, morphs into what appears to be an amusement park ride. Seeing these transformations unfold from the dull, gray world to the dazzling technicolor of What Could Be becomes one of the game’s key pleasure points. It’s a triumph of imagination.

There’s a glee to the way Blob and his Color Underground comrades approach what I would call “The Work,” their oppression-fighting agenda. Biff, the group’s strongman, refers to beating up the Inky cops as “Inky bowling,” using motivational, boastful tough-guy lingo to encourage Blob in his fight. Zip, who… well, I’m not quite sure what Zip does, prepares an obstacle course for Blob to run to inspire the Raydians to rise up and join them. Arty, the group’s color expert and source of painting-related challenges, chirps in her video-game gibberish about “powerful purple” and “revolutionary red.” Everything about this is a fun and exciting mission, mocking the staid, conformist sludge of INKT with bright billboards and transforming propaganda towers into pirate radio stations blasting the latest in Raydian hits. The Raydians whoop and jump for joy when you rescue them. It’s easy to see the contemporary struggle against oppression, all over the world, as joyless and overwhelmingly so, but de Blob reminds us it doesn’t have to be—look at the use of Pharrell’s ebullient “Happy” as a protest anthem around the world just a few years ago.

I think of one of the first days after the inauguration of Donald Trump in January 2017, in the haze of fear and rage and confusion, how hundreds of LGBTQ+ folks and their allies, also scared and angry and confused, donned rainbow boas and floral leis and danced to Lady Gaga and Madonna outside the home of homophobic Vice President Mike Pence. Watching this convergence of life and color and music and love outside of the home of a man who is cruelty and repression personified—a Heavy Inky, if you will—I felt the first thrums of hope, that maybe we could be, not okay, exactly, but that the next four (or, God forbid, eight) years would not be all gloom. We could find places and reasons to dance, and use that ebullience and volume as a means of resistance.

A whole parade of examples throughout American history of humor, of joy, of irreverence fueling protest rolls through my mind, from the Yippies nominating President Pigasus in 1968, to ACT UP member Ronny Viggiani descending on Trump Tower dressed as Dorothy in 1989, to those attending Congressional hearings dressed as swamp monsters or Monopoly Men today. Our challenges are great, but creativity and play and pleasure have had place in protest, in making the world better, throughout time.

I know the struggle we must all undertake to make the world less shitty in 2019, the reality of “The Work”, will never possess the simple, meditative pleasure of mashing some buttons and slipping into a world filling slowly with vivid patterns and trumpet bleats. The revolution, however malleable its definition and aims and timeline, will not be fought from our Nintendo Switches. The lead in our water supply, the militarized forces brutalizing city streets and stretches of borders, the poisoning of our natural resources—these are far grimmer, more urgent crises than any cartoon world can manifest. I reach for de Blob, for my umpteenth replay, when the world burning feels like too much, when my brain sirens at night with thoughts of I’m not going to make it, we’re not going to make it, we’re all so irrevocably fucked. Why even bother to write, or make art, or play a silly video game when the world burns?

But to live without joy, or pleasure, or the ability to whoop with joy at even the smallest, in-game-consequential victory, even when the odds against humanity (if not, our whole ecology) are increasingly grim, feels like no way to live. de Blob reminds me that organizing and fighting for the bright, playful, free and, ideally, pollution-free world does not have to be a ceaseless doom march. That creativity, joy, irreverence, humor and yes, even jaunty saxophone solos have a place in the fight for a brighter future.

I come back to a lot of different essays with advice for surviving and thriving in the overwhelming, murky sea of Times Like These, and one that I regularly revisit is “The Fun’s in the Fight,” Molly Ivins’ 1993 Mother Jones essay praising humor, creativity, irreverence in the great struggle. Ivins reminds us in her closing paragraph:

“So keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin’ ass and celebratin’ the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.”

de Blob does for me what Ivins urges. It reminds me that the fight can be silly at times, that it calls for collaboration and color and yes, occasionally The Work of getting your hands dirty, or your entire body spackled in paint, what have you. When I play it now, my silly, colorful refuge game, I think about where to go from here, how to use what I can offer as a writer and humorist, as a giant goof trying to make sense of the world, in these trying times. You have something to offer too. Go use it, and have fun with it.