Where to even start with this dense and confusing bit of surreality? The premise is this: Virtual Bart is one of a number of franchise titles, allegedly cranked through some sort of awful development puppy mill to allow Fox to squeeze just one more dollar from the unprecedented moneysponge that is Matt Groening’s brain. This show is still running and seems actually to have become extraordinarily funny in its irrelevance. The last episode I saw was about the Vancouver Olympics and I’m pretty sure tackled the heroin problem in Vancouver, the racial tension between west coast white people and first nations people, and how funny it is when we say vowels. It is posessed of a bravery that comes with self-awareness regarding its own faded cultural cachet and both breadth and depth of subject matter. Most times I can’t watch a new episode without being some mix between amused, offended, confused and inspired.
And somehow, Virtual Bart, despite gameplay that is best described as compulsory, manages to touch many of the same nerves. Not 5 seconds into the intro you can see a girl crying over the fact that science has failed to resurrect her beloved and deceased pet. An entire novel could be written about Sophie Jensen’s tragedy, one that serves merely as window dressing to set up the premise.
While at a science fair, Bart Simpson (whose contribution is the jarred head of his own father, 5 YEARS before Futurama sent the jarred head gag to its grave) stumbles into an unknown experiment: a virtual reality device. He is strapped to a wheel and fitted with VR gear, and spun around to determine his first digital excursion.
Opening his eyes, Bart finds that he has taken on the form of a pig. Such shame, to become the thing that we revile for its similarity to us, the hideous mirror through which we see and criticize ourselves. Nicholas Cage refuses even to eat its flesh, so undignified are its mating habits.
But look: he is not the average pig, sitting in an idyllic farm, wallowing in his filth. He is in a factory farm, modern day prison camps to domestic animals. Unlike his porcine brethren, he is free of his prison. Its keepers chase him as he runs about, trying to free other swine from their grisly fate.
The guards in this gulag of industry: clowns, every one. Take from that what you will, player. Upon his death, Bart is ground into a Krusty brand corn dog. His fate? To be devoured by his own Father.
Homer, in a struggle that might have been attacked by the blind poet, looks upon the visage of his son, now a mass-produced snack, hesitates a moment. He screams, his short iconic yelp of terror so often accompanied by his undulating sine wave of a tongue. Ultimately though, his desire to consume overcomes his grief and loss, perhaps even augmenting it, before he devours the small, cylindrical remains of the son, whole.
Virtual Bart goes on to drag its eponymous protagonists through a chain of poignant escapes, sometimes joyful in their mischief, sometimes tragic in its subtext. Where is this focus on continual drive of technology to immerse and entertain, to drag us kicking and screaming from our own context to lead? What world are we creating for ourselves when we populate it with enemies, objectives, simple rules for achieving simple ends?