Hitler, a potato and a flaming piano: How a '90s rock band inspired a fan-made JRPG

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"I can't make it past the punkers."

Scott Spillane struggles through In the Time Machine Over the Sea, dying repeatedly in the game's first few minutes. Even with the health-replenishing power of a potato stolen from a dead rat, Spillane can only withstand a few attacks from a pack of absurdly strong punk rockers. He’s not sure how much more he can take before quitting the game altogether. He’s not playing it for fun or because he likes homemade Final Fantasy retreads. He’s playing In the Time Machine Over the Sea because it’s about his band, Neutral Milk Hotel.

Trevon Turner was 17 when he first heard Neutral Milk Hotel in 2010, over a decade after the band played its last show. The aspiring writer from New York City immediately fell in love with what he calls the “great imagery and emotional context” of lead singer Jeff Mangum’s lyrics. A young musician in his own right, Turner often records covers of indie rock songs in tribute to his favorite bands. Turner thought Neutral Milk Hotel deserved more than a cover, though. He decided to honor them the best way he knew how — by making a Japanese role-playing game about them.

Neutral Milk Hotel never had a Top 100 hit or a platinum record, but it’s not that shocking that a fan would make a game about them. The band broke up in 1998, but instead of limiting their popularity, that early end helped turn them into a beloved cult group. Their fans are passionate, littering YouTube with webcam covers and writing poetry about Mangum and his songs. There’s a touring tribute band devoted to covering Neutral Milk Hotel, an exercise in musical cosplay usually reserved for massive acts like Led Zeppelin or the Beatles. The fanbase might be relatively small, but it's fervent. It's hard to imagine any indie rock band from the 1990s more likely to inspire a fan-made video game.

Neutral What Hotel?

That wasn’t always the case. When Scott Spillane joined Neutral Milk Hotel in 1996, it was an obscure indie rock band with one barely noticed album and a string of unprofitable tours. Trevon Turner was in preschool at the time.

"We were just a band," Spillane says. "We recorded parts of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, like the drums, in the living room."

When they toured, they usually opened for equally obscure bands or played with friends. The band had fans scattered across the world, thanks to fanzines and college radio, but there was little reason to expect the enduring popularity of Aeroplane.

"Even at the time I thought it was just timeless music — not too punk, not too clean."

Aeroplane was released by Merge Records in 1998, and largely ignored outside of underground rock circles and critics’ year-end lists. Touring remained a struggle. "One time we were driving from Seattle to Denver," Spillane recounts, "and I went through the van and got all the change out of the seats to buy a pack of cigarettes. And this caused a total breakdown. People were screaming about having no money and putting things on their credit cards while I'm smoking cigarettes every day. And I'm like, 'I dug out the change, man!' We weren't making any money. It was pretty rough."

Although they put out records on respected labels and toured the world, the band was still primarily a labor of love, less about making money than creating something personally important while following in the footsteps of their musical inspirations. In a way, it wasn’t that far removed from what Turner did with In the Time Machine Over the Sea.

Spillane talks about those days as if he was lucky to be invited along for the ride. "Since I didn't write the songs I can step back and view the record more objectively and say, 'Yeah, it's great.' Even at the time I thought it was just timeless music — not too punk, not too clean; it didn't sound like any trends. It was the '90s but it wasn't grungy or anything. It had its own flavor," he gushes.

Neutral Milk Hotel
Neutral Milk Hotel

"The first time we played Aeroplane for anybody else was at a listening party for our friends. We put it on the stereo and no one said a word for 45 minutes. No one got up or walked off. People were just sitting there on the floor staring off into space, and when it was finished everybody was just like, 'Holy shit, that was great.' Normally you have a CD party and people are just milling around talking."

At the end of 1998 the band quietly and unofficially broke up. Mangum stopped releasing music or performing in public until 2010, when he began an ongoing series of solo tours. It was less a sudden break than a gradual dissipation. As Spillane remembers today, "There's never been a point where we’ve said 'We're not doing this anymore.' We just haven't done it anymore."

"It didn't just go boom and suddenly everybody was listening to Neutral Milk Hotel."

Even though they didn't tour or release any new music, the band's stature grew over the decade following the breakup. Mangum withdrew from public life and became a notorious recluse, the "JD Salinger of indie rock," as Taylor Clark called him in a 2008 piece for Slate. Any rumor or scrap of news about Mangum became fodder for Pitchfork and music bloggers, and that mystery only added to the band's allure. Meanwhile, Amazon lauded In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as the second best indie rock album of all time, and in 2003 Pitchfork called it the fourth best album of the 1990s. Sales picked up noticeably and have held steady since, averaging roughly 25,000 copies a year. Neutral Milk Hotel's name has popped up as a punch line on Parks and Recreation, and bands ranging from indie rock favorites like Beirut and the Antlers to the Grammy-winning, chart-topping Arcade Fire openly acknowledge their influence.

As Spillane points out, this posthumous success arrived gradually. "It didn't just go boom and suddenly everybody was listening to Neutral Milk Hotel," he explains. "It's just grown, and not even at an exponential rate, it seems. Every year more and more people know about it, but it's not like a YouTube hit where suddenly it's 'Gangnam Style.' The first year people that were into independent music got it, and it got critical acclaim, but as the years go it just grows slowly and slowly. To some people we're like a huge band, but we don't have that feeling."

Our band could be your game

ZombiuTrevon Turner

Trevon Turner first heard Neutral Milk Hotel well after one could approach the music without Mangum's disappearance as a backdrop. As Turner listened to the record for the first time, the friend who played it for him explained the "mystery" of Jeff Mangum. Normally Mangum's reclusion would've killed Turner’s interest — "I hate falling in love with a band and realizing that they're no longer together," he says — but he couldn't resist Neutral Milk Hotel. He was especially taken by how Mangum's booming voice and elaborate lyrics contrasted with what Turner calls the band's "basic and not overly complex" music.

The following year Turner won a small scholarship in a Random House creative writing contest. His story, about two high school friends competing for a small scholarship in a creative writing contest, includes a brief reference to a poet "whose great unrecognized talent only manifested to the public" years after the fact. The overlooked artist is a common archetype, but it's easy to see a connection between that line and Turner's appreciation of Neutral Milk Hotel.

Between his love for the band and video games, his interest in the ignored genius motif and his own fascination with language and telling stories (he's currently studying creative writing and linguistics in college), Turner saw the building blocks for an unusual creative project. He worked on In the Time Machine Over the Sea throughout the summer of 2011, using the RPG Maker VX program to combine all these interests into a single work. "I can listen to those lyrics and imagine these huge scenes and fit them into certain stories in my head. That doesn't happen with many other bands. The lyrics lend themselves well to a game," he says. He stresses he's not a game designer, though, and although he's interested in design, he doesn't see himself pursuing that any further any time soon. He's simply a gamer and a fan with some spare time on his hands.

Turner largely based the game on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, although it also draws from songs and lyrics found on the band's first album, On Avery Island. He professes he's not attempting any kind of a statement — "I just wanted to have fun and make something that other fans can play, get the references and enjoy," he says.

Those fans didn't know what to make of the trailer for In the Time Machine Over the Sea when Turner posted it to YouTube in the summer of 2011. It spread quickly across the internet, with links and snarky articles on Pitchfork and other music websites. Many assumed the game didn't actually exist. The trailer introduced a game about Neutral Milk Hotel traveling back in time to rescue Anne Frank from Adolf Hitler, a scenario loosely based on a few lyrics from the songs "Holland, 1945" and "Oh Comely." "I knew [the album] had very loose ties to The Diary of Anne Frank, and I felt like there was a story there," Turner says.

The trailer seemed like a joke, although it wasn't clear what the joke was supposed to be. It looked like a parody of poorly made licensed games, recalling commercially motivated band-based video games like Aerosmith's Revolution X and two early 1982 games about the band Journey.

"It's a strange concept ... I hope the band isn't mad that I made a lot of jokes and interpreted their lyrics strangely."

Some wondered if the trailer was making fun of the extreme passion that Neutral Milk Hotel fans are known for, based on clues including the misspelling of the songwriter's name ("Jeff Magnum" is a somewhat common mispronunciation by breathless fans) and its absurdly literal adaptation of his lyrics. Turner uses the pseudonym BroPortal on the internet, and the BroPortal logo, with two arms doing a fist-bump through Portal's orange and blue wormholes, also made the trailer look like an intentional joke. The clip's tagline was "Prepare to stain the mountaintops," a reference to the refrain of the Neutral Milk Hotel song "Communist Daughter" ("Semen stains the mountaintops / semen stains the mountaintops"). It was easy to view the trailer as a Hipster Runoff-style mockery of the band’s more obsessive fans.

A few months later, In the Time Machine Over the Sea was released for free through a MegaUpload link. Clearly inspired by early installments of the Final Fantasy series, it's essentially fan fiction as video game. It's a multimedia mash-up that appropriates song lyrics and titles into a story that's very loosely based on an interpretation of two songs from a record that came out almost 15 years ago.

In the Time Machine Over the Sea
In the Time Machine Over the Sea (above and below)
In the Time Machine Over the Sea
In the Time Machine Over the Sea 4Chan

It plays like it looks, like a textbook JRPG, with 16-bit sprites walking around a world map and randomly spiraling into turn-based battles with enemies depicted via manga-style artwork. Towns feature shops, inns and talkative non-playable characters that can help or hinder the player. Boats and airships eventually open up lands that, at first, can only be stared at longingly. Instead of an androgynous, spiky-haired young man, though, the main character is a guy who once recorded a thirteen-minute noise dirge called "Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey's Eye."

Turner starts the action on Avery Island, which, in the game, isn't the Louisiana home of Tabasco Sauce but a magical island near Holland. There, Jeff Magnum (an intentional misspelling, Turner says, both to avoid offending the real-life Mangum and because "Magnum is a cooler name than Mangum") meets a Spanish boy who plays a flaming piano, which references a lyric from "Holland, 1945" (the lyric itself is a reference to the Jodorowsky film Fando y Lis). Spillane and other band members gradually join Magnum's party, using musical instruments as weapons and to cast spells. One of the game’s bosses, a tyrant with a split personality called the Two-Headed Boy, is named after a song from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. A jilted thief bent on revenge draws her name from the song “Naomi.” Eventually the Communist Daughter joins your party. The soundtrack consists of chiptune renditions of Neutral Milk Hotel songs.

This wealth of Neutral Milk Hotel references and in-jokes took more than one fan to write. After mining Mangum's songs for images and characters to reference, Turner asked 4Chan posters for further help with the game's story [link not work safe]. Along with its attempts at humor, many of In the Time Machine's less coherent strands, such as the integral role of Radiohead's Thom Yorke (misspelled as Tom York), and potatoes restoring hit points instead of potions or other food, were crowd-sourced straight from the 4Chan thread. "4Chan had a big role in the game," Turner admits. "There was a huge thread where they all just shouted these little jokes and silly ideas that I threw into the game."

For some, 4Chan's involvement might lend credence to the theory that Turner is trolling Neutral Milk Hotel fans with his game. He swears that isn’t the case, although the game is supposed to be funny. Turner doesn't get defensive or upset when asked about his intentions. "It's understandable to think it's a joke," he says. "It's not like a joke in that it's meant to be stupid or bad, but it is supposed to be taken light-heartedly.

"It's a strange concept," he acknowledges. "Making a video game based around a Neutral Milk Hotel album? Taking kind of silly lyrics like 'Two-Headed Boy' and adapting them like they were something real in a game is just funny. I hope the band isn't mad that I made a lot of jokes and interpreted their lyrics strangely."

The band plays itself

Scott Spillane isn't mad or offended. He's fascinated by In the Time Machine Over the Sea. As he describes it, there are three stages to learning that there's a video game about your band. "First I thought it was weird," he says. "Then I thought it was pretty cool. And then I thought I'd like to play that game to see what it's like."

Spillane downloaded In the Time Machine Over the Sea shortly after its release. He hit a roadblock very early in the game, consistently dying in the first town. Occasionally he'd die in the woods around the village while trying to grind to a higher level. "Those fucking wasps will kill you," he gripes. "And I'm allergic to wasps, so that's quite fitting."

When told that a member of the band had played his game, Turner sounds excited but a little nervous. "I just hope he thinks it's fun," Turner says, "that it's just a funny idea that somebody would enjoy their work enough to make something like this."

Spillane never questioned Turner's motives. From the start he saw the game as a legitimate tribute from a fan, another example of the passion people feel for the band. "I didn't even think about it being a joke," he says. And in-game references that seem to equate Neutral Milk Hotel to such legitimately huge bands as Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix don't seem weird to Spillane, either. "From personal experience, growing up in Ruston, Louisiana, and listening to music my friends made from the time I was 20 years old, that music is as big to me as Led Zeppelin. If you listen to Zep, and at the same time you're listening to your friends or somebody like Superchunk, in your brain they're the same. The only difference is what the rest of the world thinks. It's part of your nature after you listen to something a lot. Even if it's the guy next door, and you're the only two people that have a tape."

Scott Spillane acts as a healer in the game, using his trumpet to cast spells that heal his squad mates. The real-life Spillane likes the way that sounds. "I'm more of a support kind of guy," he says. "It's like being a medic in Team Fortress, running around and healing people. It's all part of the team."

Spillane doesn’t expect the other members of Neutral Milk Hotel to ever give In the Time Machine Over the Sea a shot. "I'm the closest thing to a gamer in the band," he says, a trait that dates back to a childhood addiction to arcades and the game Star Castle. "I think the other guys would be more neutral than anything about it," he continues. "None of them have ever seemed interested whenever I've mentioned video games in the past. They look at me like, 'Are you kidding me?' And I'm like, 'What are you talking about? Counter Strike is awesome.' 'All you do is run around killing people.' 'Yeah, I know, but it's fun.'"

Mangum and the other members might not ever play In the Time Machine Over the Sea, but Spillane doesn't think they'd have a problem with its existence. "I assume that they would be OK with it," he says, 'because that's what it's all about, right? Making music that people are passionate about? That's the whole goal."

"First I thought it was weird. Then I thought it was pretty cool. And then I thought I'd like to play that game to see what it's like."

That passion obviously runs through In the Time Machine Over the Sea. The most interesting thing about the game is that it exists — that a fan would sacrifice his own free time and, with the help of other fans, turn a beloved record that's almost as old as he is into a type of game that's even older. It's not a parody or an intentional commentary on fandom, but a light-hearted and sincere tribute made for those fans. And, like most fan fiction, it says more about the fans who made it and play it than anything else. "I don't know if the word 'cute' is an insult or not, but it's cute that somebody would make this," Spillane concludes. "It's endearing." Turner doesn't take that as an insult &mdash "that is so great to hear," he enthuses.

Meanwhile Spillane types away on his laptop, guiding computerized versions of himself and one of his oldest friends through a spider-filled cave that leads to the Two Headed Boy's castle, as video game versions of his band's songs radiate from his speakers. Babykayak

LuigiScott Spillane playing In the Time Machine Over the Sea