Not dead yet?

Total Distortion caps an era of CD-ROM games

Published November 12, 1995 9:01AM (EST)

If you burrow far enough into the "massive video database" of the new CD-ROM Total Distortion, you'll eventually stumble upon a full-length anthem of creative angst -- a song written by Total Distortion's chief creator, Joe Sparks, about his own difficulties in completing the long-awaited game.

People say "quit" but not quite yet

Just a few more things to do. . .

We've got to saw it off and ship it

In a box

Saw it off and ship it

And send it on out, now.

Total Distortion has been the most celebrated example of multimedia vaporware for so long -- close to four years -- that it's hard to believe Sparks and his company, Pop Rocket, have finally sawed off their product and shipped it. Clearly, the operation involved some pain.

What's in the box? Total Distortion casts you as a music-video entrepreneur -- male or female, your choice -- combing an alien universe called the Distortion Dimension for hot clips to sell to picky Earthside DJs. Its creators call it a "music-video adventure game;" it's something like a role-playing game inside a Myst-like environment with a make-your-own-video module at its heart.

You can play Total Distortion and get your money's worth without ever leaving your "Personal Media Tower" and its video-editing console. (A sort of sophisticated toy version of programs like Premiere, it lets you mix sound, titles and three graphic layers into videos that you can save, trade and even enter into contests at Pop Rocket's web site.) But to win the game, you need to earn money and "fame points" -- and avoid getting blasted to sonic bits by hulking "Guitar Warriors" whom you must face in chord-to-chord combat.

Ambitious multimedia innovators usually shy away from the "game" label. They seek to remove complex gaming elements from their creations -- to banish the buttons and inventories and combat systems that traditionally clutter a game's interface. They struggle to give audiences as transparently lifelike an experience as current technology allows. They want their games to feel like life.

Total Distortion gleefully charges in the other direction: it thumps its game-proud chest, dubbing itself, in one of its many opening screens, a "Great Big Game Thing!" And it translates every aspect of life into a sequence of gaming challenges.

It's not just a matter of solving puzzles to get doors to open, as in Myst or The Seventh Guest; you must master little games simply for your character to sleep, eat and survive. If, for instance, you don't learn to shoot down the evil grinning nightmares and, literally, "catch Zs," your character will pass out from exhaustion -- and Total Distortion will perform a nose-thumbing dance of victory over your corpse.

Life as a game: Total Distortion takes that slightly crazy concept to deliberately baroque extremes. Its genius lies in the way the game rewards you as you master it -- not only with points but with new raw material for your art. The deeper you travel into the game's rock 'n' roll universe, the more crunched-out music and spiky images you can carry home to use in your videos. If making those videos is enjoyable in itself -- and it was for me -- then Total Distortion has managed to reward not just your game character but you, too.

The game borrows its hyperactive aesthetics from its MTV-of-the-future subject matter. The Distortion Dimension turns out, unsurprisingly, to be a noisy place, a soup of soundbites -- guitar licks, groans of pleasure, cries of "C'mon, baby" and "Not dead yet?" All of Total Distortion's music was written and performed by the Pop Rocketeers themselves, and they're featured in many of its video clips, too -- along with people they found on the street near their Haight-Ashbury digs. Self-referential? Sure, but in an endearing way. In a marketplace full of junk CD-ROMs cranked out by corporate committees, here's one that's lovingly handcrafted -- and covered with its creators' fingerprints.

Strangely enough, the one thing Total Distortion isn't going to feel like is a technological advance. Razzle-dazzle devices and techniques that looked revolutionary two years ago when Sparks previewed them at trade shows are now relatively common. For all its flash and fun, Total Distortion is less a breakthrough leap onto some new multimedia level than a summation of what's gone before. It's more the end of an era than the beginning.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

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