Crispy Gamer

American McGee's Grimm, Episode 1

Before Disney got its hands on them, stories like "Cinderella" and "Little Red Riding Hood" were violent, nasty little cautionary tales meant to scare children into being good boys and girls. But somewhere along the way, fairy tales lost their teeth. Characters began living "happily ever after," and the phrase "fairy-tale ending" was coined to describe a peachy-perfect resolution to a problem, typically involving an attractive couple riding off into the sunset while woodland animals frolic at their feet.

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Blocky cartoon faces aside, it's still creepy when they wriggle on the ropes.

Well, American McGee wants none of that. Having already offered his bleak interpretation of "Alice in Wonderland" with American McGee's Alice -- which portrayed an insane adult Alice navigating a warped Wonderland with a gaunt and mangy Cheshire Cat at her side -- the Shanghai-based developer has taken on the entire oeuvre of the Brothers Grimm with a similar eye to the macabre.

American McGee's Grimm is a bit of an experiment in online distribution and episodic content. The game is split into 24 episodes that are being released one per week through online download service GameTap.

The first episode sets the stage for the series, and opens with two pretty, light-haired children asking Grimm, personified as an ugly troll-creature with a bad case of plumber's butt, to tell them a story. Grimm opens up the book of fairy tales, but gets upset by the fact that the stories are all too light and cute. Cue an introductory song straight out of "Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas" as the creature capers around lamenting the fact that fairy tales all have happy endings.

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Idyllic schoolyard plaground, B.G. (Before Grimm).

In order to show the children what real fairy tales are all about, Grimm decides to go through the stories and darken them up, starting with the first episode: A Boy Learns What Fear Is.

The plot concerns a young boy who seems incapable of experiencing fear, and so sets out on a journey to search for the emotion through a series of encounters, including a confrontation over a missing bell at a schoolyard, a journey to a gallows, and an overnight stay in a king's haunted castle.

As Grimm, you'll invade the scenes of the fairy tale and basically turn everything sour. Gameplay is somewhat similar in concept to Katamari Damacy. Controlling the dwarf from behind, all you have to do is walk around and the sheer nastiness of his presence will turn everything around him brown and putrid, creating a kind of dysfunctional alternate universe.

This starts with the boy's idyllic home. "Make it... stinky!" the game commands, and you're off. Birdbaths turn into cauldrons of lava, flowers sprout into sickly thorned vines, a harmless pickaxe morphs into a blood-splattered carving implement, do-gooding peasants turn into downtrodden serfs, and so on, until Grimm's Dark-o-Meter charges to the appropriate level and he proudly exclaims "I'm... stinky!" Then you can perform a "buttstomp" move in the appropriate location to unlock the next part of the level. Eventually the town gets overrun by lava and the boy and his father run for safety, but you chase them down and buttstomp the father, which causes him to turn mean and slug his son into next week -- I guess the boy learned fear.

That's just the beginning. You'll need to charge the Dark-o-Meter ever higher, from Stinky to Foul, Rotten, Repulsive and more, to advance all the way through the story. As he does so, Grimm will gain the ability to turn ever larger objects rotten.

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From pretty village to putrid cesspit -- Grimm teaches the boy about fear.

Gameplay is more exploratory than challenging; the first episode, at least, can be described as a light platformer with a few jumps to make, some slight danger in the form of potentially falling into water or lava, but nothing frustrating or particular taxing. The entire episode can be completed in about half an hour, which looks like it's going to be the norm for the entire series.

There's plenty of juvenile grossness -- fart sound effects, the fact that Grimm's default resting position is with hands on crotch pissing a yellow arc of fluid out in front of him (thankfully, you only ever see him from the back). There is also, however, some twisted imagery that would be genuinely cruel if not for the game's angular, cartoonish graphical style (again, an homage to Katamari Damacy), which makes it easier to watch scenes of children getting impaled on playground equipment, or criminals in gallows with platforms that crumble so that they start to hang, making choking sounds and wriggling on their ropes for the rest of the level.

If there are allegories to be found here, I think I've missed them. In fact, the game's entire introductory chapter left me confused about the game's purpose. Is American McGee's Grimm making an artistic statement, or is it all just a gross-for-the-sake-of-being-gross piss-take? The verdict will no doubt become clearer over time, but if all if the episodes end up being hefty doses of the latter, then it could be a mighty long series.

This feature was based on a copy of the game provided by the publisher.

Check back here for a look at the upcoming episodes, A Boy Who Learns Fear is Little Red Riding Hood, which will be released on Aug. 7, and The Fisherman and His Wife, which will be released on Aug. 14.