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Thursday, June 28, 2012

HBO's Braingames


I was going over old '80s shows for a future article when I came across something I'd totally forgotten about. A lost gem from my early years: Braingames.

Braingames was only on HBO, a channel that was fortunately present in my youth. Thanks to it, I got to see Fraggle Rock and a host of movies my dad recorded. Uncensored, commercial-free, and unedited -- the way movies were supposed to be. Apparently, it used to be a half-hour show, but when I saw it, it was broken into single-game vignettes that filled time gaps between blocks of children's programming or movies.

This was the SCARIEST FUCKING THING I had ever encountered at that tender young age of six or so.

First, Braingames appeared randomly, so you never knew when that fucking scary introduction would appear. If there was ten minutes or so before a half-hour mark, there was a higher likelihood, but certainly not a guarantee. And there would be no warning when it started out with this:




There is something nightmarish about the Monty Python style animation of an egg being laid while twangy music plays. Then that eggs drops down to a blinking computer room and becomes something's head, which he can't even see. Two different animation styles blend while the egg cracks open and cyberpunk arcade music plays. There was nothing like this in the real world of Care Bears and Go-Bots. It's MTV-style animation before there was such a thing.

For some reason, in the 80's, there was a lot of scary egg things.




Besides randomly appearing, the games it showed were random. Most of these weren't scary. They involved low budget children's animation and pleasant announcers. Things like Safari Solitaire, which was basically an animal question with multiple choice. Except the host always seemed to be in a perpetual state of danger from the animals he was talking about.

Memory Rock was rather bizarre, with music video style colored-in still-motion. It was basically a "memorize the picture" then answer questions about what you remember.

Digitville, a city where all the people have heads shaped like number things, like dice, parking meters, rulers, dominoes, etc. It lifted its questions from the Enrichment sections of your math textbook. It explained to me the "How far can something go into the forest? Halfway, because then he's going out of the forest." joke. Never understood that until I could see it visually. Of course, I thought a sending a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope meant you had to write the address yourself, and send an empty envelope.

The one I remember most were "Whosamawhatchamacallits". This was where a distorted image would appear while the announcer narrated clues. The viewer had to guess who the character was while some Bradbury-esque carnival music played. The images were presented on a dark screen and slowly animated into recognition through a variety of ways, each with a sense of impending dread. Maybe the reason I remember it so well was that it was the scariest. Sometimes the answer was surprising, like a copyrighted character (e.g. Spider-Man, Garfield).

And the end came. With that same faint twangy beat along with the announcer sobbing as he said "Braingames... is now... over..."




Why was he crying? Why was he so sad? It was like everybody died, because I didn't get enough answers right (and they were a lot harder when I was six). And when was he coming back? No one knew. He sounded so distraught. It was like HBO took his family out back and killed them in front of him.

HBO, you heartless bastards.
Who play-tested this show? It's like a nightmare from Sesame Street's brain. The announcers and music always made it seem like you were facing off against an AI a la "WarGames" with high-pressure questions and dramatic tones. There was no mercy in BrainGames. Thank god it wasn't actually interactive.
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