Monday, December 27, 2010

Your Lithosphere (Dig Dug 2 and Digger: The Legend of the Lost City)

The number of video games based on going upwards far exceeds the number based on going downwards. The former category includes a wealth of games in which you fly. The latter includes D&D-type dungeon crawls, of which there are only a few on the NES, and a handful of arcade-style games that, due to the way in which verbs work, had two of their number appear together here today.

In Alan Moore's landmark Promethea, he describes two complimentary desires of humanity - the serpentine desire to ascend, and the dove-like desire to descend. Ascent is linked to human improvement, while descent is linked to self-sacrifice. The value of descent is that it is the means by which knowledge gained through ascent is disseminated through the world. It is, in other words, the engine by which good ideas turn into actual transformation of human consciousness.

Video games are the more natural ally of the serpentine, and so this pair of games is an interesting side trip from the norm that is worth exploring.

Of the two, it is Digger that is the most obvious game. A simple cave-based quest for treasure acquisition, it is not surprising that it was developed by Rare, because it plays very much like a mediocre game by people who are going to make a good one eventually. The ideas are there, the controls are reasonably sharp, it's just that the game lacks that final little bit that elevates it from forgettably fun to a good game.

But in it, we come upon a real challenge to our initial division of serpentine and dove...like. Crap. I need an adjective here. Ooh. Columbidine. There's a fun word to coin. OK. So our initial division of serpentine and columbidine. If the columbidine is supposed to be the mode of sacrifice, then the quest for treasure, which is the major thrust of underground games, is, if not antithetical to the mode of self-sacrifice, at least orthogonal to it. Massive acclimation of personal wealth is only seen as noble self-sacrifice by, well, the Republican party. Further complicating this is that we are in a cave here. Caves are let's say, generally a bit more associated with snakes than with doves, who, and I'm speaking in the most general case here, tend not to like caves because they're rubbish for flying in.

So, yes, that's a theory dead and dusted, right? Yeah, you're new here, aren't you? We usually don't give a theory the time of day unless it's spectacularly and self-evidently wrong. Utter implausibility is our baseline reading. And anyway, any time you work up a nice dualism like serpentine/columbidine instincts, you know you're going to have some intermingling.

After all, it is, in Alan Moore's telling, the serpentine instinct that leads to genetic descent. Actually, we already did a whole entry on this. So it is clear that the serpentine and columbidine instincts are closely related. The will to improve and climb upwards is inexorably linked to a will to descend and bring light to the darkest of places. In which case Digger provides an interesting insight on this process. In Digger, the acquisition of treasure justifies further descent. In other words, the serpentine process of questing for riches justifies and fuels the columbidine process of descending further into the darkness, which in turn enables further serpentine treasure looting. The process is, furthermore, sustained by delaying the self-sacrificing instinct - that is, by avoiding death and maintaining one's lives. It is, in other words, the serpentine instinct that both motivates and curtails the columbidine instinct. Inasmuch as the columbidine is a reframing of the Freudian death drive, this was already clear - the death drive relies on the sex drive to sustain itself, because the death drive in its pure form is unsustainable. Thus the road to columbidine descent is paved with shiny treasures.

Dig Dug 2 is weird. Part of this is that Dig Dug, as a franchise, is weird. It actually makes a fairly good nerd test - is Dig Dug a classic video game, or a classic video game franchise? I mean, it's clear that Dig Dug is a franchise, given that it had a sequel, but actually, Dig Dug 2, despite being the better game, is not really a classic. So presumably Dig Dug is a classic game, but not a classic franchise. Except, actually, that's wrong, because the 1982 arcade game Dig Dug and the 1999 Mr. Driller are actually part of the same series, and that Mr. Driller is the son of Dig Dug. And Mr. Driller is, actually, a pretty solid arcade classic. So, you know. That's fun trivia.

But yes, in any case. Dig Dug 2 is not a classic game. This is not for any particular reason. It's a fun arcade-stye game. Unlike regular Dig Dug, in which the screen is used to depict a vertical cross-section of an underground region, Dig Dug 2 takes place on a series of islands. Digging is replaced with the alternate action of creating massive fault lines through the island and sinking portions of it underwater, preferably with nasty things in tow.

So, in this regard, not a game about digging in the sense of descent. Rather, it is a game about digging destructively. The act of digging is one of unmaking the established terrain - in a very literal sense one of destroying the Earth. But this destruction is not wanton, but rather carefully controlled. It is destruction in the sense of surgery. One destroys tracts of land to excise the nasty things. The risk of doing so is twofold - first, one can inadvertently sink one's self - one has to quickly move off the fault line or risk immediate death. Second, one can inadvertently trap monsters in closer proximity to one's self. Failure to eliminate enough bad things with an incision leaves you stuck on a smaller island with lots of monsters - not a good outcome.

In other words, to dig is still sacrificial. It is a game about cutting away the negative, about judicious and planned destruction. This is columbidine in the extreme - a game about plunging into the earth to purify it, risking one's life in the process. Dig Dug is not a game of treasure collection - occasionally a mushroom or some fruit shows up, but inasmuch as the game has a plot, the plot appears, to the player, to be primarily about destroying the monsters. The player travels from island to island, it seems, only to purify them. The game is endless - there are 72 levels, after which the game simply repeats. In other words, the act of purification has no end. The goal is simply to eliminate as much of the evil as one can before dying.

This is the unusual thing about the columbidine. Unlike the serpentine, it does not end straightforwardly in a moment of glory. This is an aspect of video games that, thus far, we have been hard-pressed to talk about at length, mostly because I don't usually reach them. But here, because there is no ending to reach, ironically, we can talk about it. The columbidine video game is simply an attempt to stave off death. Its goal is not victory, or triumph, but mere survival. And, furthermore, its goal can never actually be obtained. It is not a common sort of video game. But even that is strangely appropriate. The fragility of the columbidine game - its endless, ephemeral struggle against death - makes it a genre that is oddly suited to its own obscurity.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Now I Have a Blog Entry, Ho, Ho, Ho (Dick Tracy and Die Hard)

The NES is not a cultural event, but is rather cultural scenery. It was not until late in the lifecycle of the NES, and, coincidentally, late in the alphabet that video gaming attained the status of event. For most of the NES's lifespan, cultural events happened elsewhere. Specifically, in the movies. We've talked obliquely about this before, but today we have two games based on movies, so it is perhaps time to delve back in more detail.

The first is Dick Tracy, a movie-as-non-event that I talked about before, and that Keith Phipps has already explored in exquisite detail. It's an interesting question - what if you threw a massive cultural event and nothing happened? I remember the fervor of Dick Tracy - the mass of advertised rogues, all of them looking fascinatingly devilish, the iconic yellow jacket... I was excited for the movie. And then it fizzled, in no small part because, as I remember with some vividness, the movie was pretty awful. I watched it having little to no idea what was going on. (The same was true, to be fair, of the first two Batman movies, which have aged, to my mind, extremely well, in particular the delightfully insane Batman Returns.)

I call this project a psychochronography. I suppose this is as good a time as any to define the term. I coined it from the existent psychogeography, an artistic movement generally associated with England. Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell is probably the best-known example, but the work of Iain Sinclair deserves major underlining as well. Psychogeography is a sort of gonzo history focused through the specific lens of geography. The simplest example is probably Iain Sinclair's book London Orbital, in which he walks the M25 around London, describing the experiences and relating them to the broader history of the places and the development of the idea of London. Other examples include Alan Moore's spoken word piece The Highbury Working, in which he focuses on a small segment of London and uses an extended narrative of its history to try to resuscitate its identity and culture. From Hell takes a different spin on it, offering a psychogeography of Victorian England as a whole, thus relating the idea more heavily to time, though the graphic novel's most obviously psychogeographic segment comes when Gull takes a tour of London to uncover an extended network of occult symbols.

By psychochronography, I mean the application of this process of interweaving memory and history to the material remnants of history. That is, I seek to create a map of the metaphors that were underlying my own life. In truth such a map is inconceivable - for one, personal history is not fixed in a convenient spatial frame. This is why I rejected the more obvious psychochronology - because chronology suggests a successful ordering into a timeline. I am not making a timeline any more than Iain Sinclair was making a physical map in London Orbital. Psychogeography is not psychocartography.

But something must be fixed and ordered to allow the narrative to progress. Psychogeography creates this by wandering the backroads, taking walking tours of areas more often accessed by cars, and, generally speaking, transgressing the normal lines of transit through a space. I produce the same effect by  ordering my musings along the the line of alphabetical order of Nintendo Games. No matter how you handle this problem, however, you eventually encounter a landmark.

Dick Tracy is, however, an odd landmark - an example of ruins. The frame of the event is still there. Even some of its major contents, most notably the film itself, which can readily be watched. One might think that is the whole of the landmark, or at least its major content, but to do so is to misunderstand the focus of psychochronography. The event is not defined primarily by its actual history, but by its role in memory. Hence it is the period of anticipation - the period where I believed, with all my heart, that Dick Tracy was the coolest thing ever - that is most relevant to this project.

Or, more accurately, it is the way in which subsequent touring of this cultural space uncovers previously inaccessible knowledge about my own experience. Having little to no idea who anyone in the film other than Madonna was, I did not appreciate the insane array of talent who wasted their time in this movie. Nor did I have proper respect for the Dick Tracy comic, an absurd piece of over the top violence that had its zenith, where zenith is defined as "weirdest point," in the 1960s when it became a bizarre piece of science fiction about people on the moon. (I am, as usual, not making this up)

Nowadays, when relatively arcane and mediocre properties such as Tron, Marmaduke, Land of the Lost, Yogi Bear, Speed Racer, and Get Smart are mined for movies despite the paucity of anyone who actually gives a damn about them, it is easy to overlook the strangeness of this method of cultural event creation, in which what is essentially a hazy half-memory is imbued with bizarre importance and sold off as a cultural treasure whose revival thus qualifies as an event. That this is, at best, utter nonsense is beside the point.

To sustain this illusion, however, it is necessary to mobilize the larger engine of culture in order to make it appear that the unloved property is, in fact, major. Hence the flood of action figures, happy meals, behind the scenes specials, and other such nonsenses, including video games. Where this becomes relevant to my (and I'll happily stipulate that they are insane) interests is this - does the existence of false nostalgia (a term I lovingly steal from this article) corrupt the project? With these quagmires of artificial history and myth laid throughout the relevant territory, does this invalidate the project, allowing the mythos of my past to be overwritten by commercialized treacle? 

Judging from the game, it's a soberingly bad threat. Dick Tracy, as a game, makes one long for the movie. Awkward detective action, the game plays like the worst stereotypes of movie licensed video games - a slapped together piece of shovelware. Created without thought or effort, the game is the epitome of false nostalgia - existing only to delude the player into thinking some other activity (watching the movie in this case) would be a source of pleasure. False nostalgia thrives on this - the deferring of pleasure and fun into some other part of the culture. We watch I Love the 80s to wax nostalgic about movies that we have no nostalgia for in order to build up the illusion of nostalgia for the purposes of being made to buy something new, but at every turn the actual object of pleasure is displaced - the fun is somewhere else. Dreadful practice. To be avoided at all costs. 

As a game, Die Hard is no better - a potentially neat idea marred by the fact that nobody actually took any time to make the game. There's a good game to be done this way - slowly infiltrating a building and systematically taking out terrorists. It's just that, you know, it wasn't done that way. It was done half-assedly. But there is one significant difference between Die Hard and Dick Tracy as video games - Dick Tracy came out in 1990, the same year as the movie. Die Hard came out in 1991, three years after the film in question, and a year after it's sequel.

It is separated, then, from the cultural event. And, furthermore, it's tough not to call Die Hard a cultural event, given that it was actually a good movie that people remember fondly, as opposed to Dick Tracy. This is the first lesson of this territory, then - that even though there is false nostalgia, that does not remove the genuine possibility of this landscape. Indeed, false nostalgia amounts to little more than psychochronography done maliciously - the remapping of memory and history not to produce insight, but to produce money, and generally not for you. 

One solution to this dilemma is simply to be pickier - to, when confronted with crap games like Dick Tracy that exist as part of a pseudo-event, or, for that matter, crap games like Die Hard that are just pale references to an event, toss them out and seek myth elsewhere. Certainly I could do that, and have a much more focused blog with reliable quality. But that's cheating.

No. Instead, let's go Modernist. The full Ezra Pound. Make it new. Make it weird. Make it interesting. Because usually, the culture is. I mean, look at Dick Tracy - a sublimely overinflated cultural event built around a comic that saw its best days, and, for that matter, its weirdest days ages past. Or Die Hard, its strange merging of Bruce Willis, then better known as a comic actor, with the tropes of 80s action films that it itself is the exemplar of.

Be it resolved, then. Skip the boring bits. In fact, let's codify this. Sandifer's razor. The scruffier counterpart of Occam's Razor. Given the choice among equally plausible hypotheses, pick the most interesting one.

This is the only possible salvation from bad 80s action movie video game spinoffs. 

Monday, December 13, 2010

All of the Angels are Cowboy Singers (Cowboy Kid)

Special thanks to Tracy Grammer for her patient answers to my overly verbose questions. Please do yourself (and her) a favor, and buy some music at the band's website, or at hers.

I have long been an advocate for the view that art is poorly understood as sketching out a world. Video games make this clearer than most things. Cowboy Kid is no exception. A Western narrative of staggering minimalism, the story amounts to "You walk into town, get armed, get hired as sheriff, and go about busting bad guys." A sort of merge of a beat-em-up and Legend of Zelda, complete with "It's Dangerous to Go Alone" moment, the game is not firmly situated on one end or the other of the good/bad distinction.

What I like about it, though, is that it seems to me to capture the sense of placelessness of the best Westerns. I'm thinking here of The Man With No Name, a series of movies where the locations, chronology, and geography are ambiguous at best and completely screwed up at worst. (Chicago, apparently, is right near Phoenix) The amorphous, clumsy "worlds" of video games are better suited to Westerns than other genres because the Western is used to working in a mythic place that is as much dream as reality.

As a result, and perhaps somewhat strangely, I associated westerns inexorably with Dave Carter. In the fall of 2003, a little more than a year after he died of a massive heart attack in Hadley, Massachusetts, not half an hour from where I was born, I bought my first album of Dave Carter's music - his 2001 album with Tracy Grammer, Drum Hat Buddha. And thus began a seven year affair with his music that saw his work with Tracy Grammer rapidly take the top slot of favorite music, a slot it has held since, fending off such luminaries as Vienna Teng and The Wailin' Jennys, to say nothing of earlier favorites like The Smiths, Tori Amos, and R.E.M.

Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, among their preposterous number of gifts, were uniquely good at describing albums. Their second album, Tanglewood Tree, was billed as "the world's first Buddhist Country album," while Drum Had Buddha had my favorite description of what they did: Postmodern mythic American folk.

There are many things to love about his music. He is as sharp a songwriter as has ever strummed a guitar - capable of twisting a melody that does not stick in your head so much as haunt it. In a genre of music that typically values a confessional authenticity (exemplified in this case by Dar Williams), or an equally biographical authenticity (Richard Shindell being the current king of this, although the Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger tradition speaks volumes), Carter's music stood out. It would be deeply misleading to call his work inauthentic. Rather, it exists on a different spectrum entirely.

Here is where the mythic comes in. Carter studied briefly with Joseph Campbell, popularizer of the Jungian archetype approach to mythology. I discovered Campbell in late 1997, as Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer were beginning to tour together. I was in my second of three years in high school, having fought for and won permission to take senior electives in English on the basis of my having completed college-level English work (though, frustratingly, I had to agree to take the sophomore-level English class as well). I signed up for a class called Modernism and Mythology, which turned out to be a thorough overview of mythological tropes and Jungian archetypes vis-a-vis Joseph Campbell.

This was my first exposure to literary theory, a cavernous rabbit hole I would tumble down at length subsequently, and now shout upwards from the bottom of. Since then, Campbell has fallen from my favor, more because his followers produce bewilderingly bad and boring scholarship than because his central idea of observing pan-cultural mythic tropes was a dud for me. If I have a complaint about Campbell, it's that, after observing the fascinating phenomenon of cross-cultural mythic elements - things like the unsettling preponderance of serpents in creation myths across different and independent cultures - he takes the utterly depressing (and morally questionable) position of positing a monomyth, a sort of master narrative that all myths stem from. The cultural imperialism involved is lost on Campbell.

But other possibilities exist. Postmodernism is full of them, as is the largely abandoned but still fascinating and productive process of syncretism. These days, other than Unitarian Universalists, who take the concept a mite far for my tastes, syncretic faiths are mostly small blends in third world countries - fascinating, but obscure. I personally love it, because syncretism avoids the imperialism of Campbell. A good syncretic combination merges multiple concepts into something new, as opposed to subsuming one into the other.

And then there is Dave Carter. A folk singer whose syncretism transcends dry theology and turns to art. It would be a mistake to treat Carter as some sort of prophet. Or, perhaps more accurately, it would be a mistake to treat him as just a prophet. The folk tradition is central to what Carter did - the personal, material intimacy of folk music is alive and well in his songs. It is not that Carter seems equally at ease in the home of the gods or in a seedy bar on the outskirts of town. It is that he seems not to see a difference between the two. This is inspired by Campbell, clearly - Tracy Grammer says, in fact, that reading Joseph Campbell, she could literally hear Carter's voice in Campbell's words.
The result are songs that feel like dreams that have taken form. Take his glorious song "The Mountain," a song begins with Tracy Grammer's haunting vocal, "I was born in a forked-tongued story, raised up by merchants and drug store liars. Now I walk on the paths of glory, one foot in ice and one in fire." At once mythic and personal, set in some other world of magic and this one simultaneously, the song pulls you in, sketching out not a real place, but a place that is somehow more real than mere reality.

Carter was, if not a prophet, at least someone who was unmistakably playing with live ammunition when he worked with mythology. He was not merely evoking the tropes or making allusions, but rather using myths actively - making something new, in the genuine and magical syncretic tradition. If he was a prophet, it was not a prophet in any sense we have seen one before, but a new sense. He was a postmodern prophet, one who sought not to tell The True Story, but a story - a real, live story. When I asked Tracy Grammer what she took post-modernism to be, she said that it was "Refusal to adhere to the notion of One Truth -- and that includes the truth of the story conveyed inside the song itself, and how we as artists choose to represent that song (our truth) to the world." Were it that more prophets spoke like that.

It is here, perhaps, that Carter most resonates with me. And always has, though it was not until talking with Tracy Grammer that I knew the words to say it in. Mythos as live ammunition is central to the Nintendo Project. The idea that I can take the lowest of cultural detritus and, because it was part of the deep consciousness of my childhood and generation, make myth out of it. It's an enduring gamble. A balancing act. A mythology of materialism.

This materialism has its consequences. Carter and Grammer knew this. Grammer still does. Every album contains a small note – “By this merit may all beings swiftly realize omniscience,” for instance. These dedications of merit are a Buddhist practice that amount to a declaration of intent – that the album, the work of art itself, ease suffering in the world. This is one consequence. Others are harsher.

When myths are brought forth to walk the streets, when they are brought to life, they are brought also to death. Neil Gaiman once said that the real trouble with stories is that "if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death." This story ends on a hotel room floor in Hadley, Massachusetts.

But not yet.

It is difficult for me to imagine Dave Carter as a digital figure, although apparently he did, in his lengthy lead-up to his career with Tracy Grammer (which began when he was in his 40s), record computerized music. But something about his music seems to me strangely reminiscent of video games. I alluded to it above - the way in which a game like Cowboy Kid is strangely out of place and time. The result is that, with a video game, one plays less with objects than with tropes. This is the strange nature of the alleged immersiveness of video games. They do not immerse you in a world, but rather in a set of ideas. Cowboy Kid is not a Western story, but every Western story - the opportunity to experience the raw form of the genre.

This is a very tricky thing to accomplish, artistically. Art, in the Aristotelean tradition, is imitative. Imitations of imitation get to staggering abstraction pretty quickly, making this sort of meta-fictional move inherent to video games tough to make work. This is part of why video games are not, often, great art - because their narratology is incredibly difficult.

To make this work in song is extraordinary. But Dave Carter did it. Part of this is an incredible gift for wordplay that paints vivid abstractions - a line like "I walk the Occam's Razor way through priests and circus clowns" is at once inscrutable and vivid in a way that makes me gape in awe every time I think about it - a truly fantastic lyric. And there are few images more chillingly threatening than "a twisting pillar spun of dust and blood up from the prairie floor," nor images more poignant than "the crystal ball, always bright before, is gray as the dust of desire."

In my interview with her, Tracy Grammer made the following statement in a discussion of how it was decided who would sing what songs: "The choice of a voice for a particular song depended on which manifestation of our Narrator we wished to present." I love this way of thinking - that somehow the disparate songs of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, from the tough-guy cowboy songs to the sweetly sad love songs, from Buddhist meditations to love songs to Jesus, are all unmistakably from one voice. This is not the persona-donning character sketch folk of Richard Shindell, nor the storytelling folk of Woody Guthrie, nor the confessionalism of Dar Williams. This is something else - music that does not so much reach into the deep well of the mythic as tap it, allowing it to gush forth into the world.

So here's one myth. Dave Carter was born in 1952 to a profoundly devout evangelical Christian mother - a childhood that exposed him to the charismatic Christian tradition, a tradition that any coherent ethical or aesthetic judgment on would be too complex even for the Nintendo Project. He moved about the world in an almost classically bohemian fashion, with a series of experiences that read like they fell out of a Jack Kerouac novel - studies in mathematics, transpersonal psychology, computer programming, and music in amongst bouts of country singing, psychedelic rock, film scores, and kids music, and the occasional hitchhiking trip across the country.

Eventually, in 1998, he met Tracy Grammer. The nature of their relationship was clearly as complex as it was intense. The party line on the incessant questions of romantic entanglement was that they were "partners in all things," a statement Grammer later quietly clarified to confirm that romance was, in fact, a subset of all things.

There are two ways to look at the next (and last) four years of Dave Carter's life. In one, it was Tracy Grammer that provide the unique final ingredient that allowed Carter's genius to break through into the world and allowed him to become the major figure he deserved to be. In another, more akin to that proposed by Grammer, it was a matter of zeitgeist: "what was it about the year 1998 that made our world suddenly receptive to the work of Dave Carter?"

Regardless, the next four years were stunning. "When I Go," their first album together, is uneven, but its highlights are jaw-dropping. It is its first track, however, that is both the stand-out track and one of the most chilling recordings ever made. The song has characteristic Carterian mystery - what exactly is meant by "when I go" is not clear, but there is something intensely, fatally final about it - something that would lead to "diamond tears" on the part of whomever the song is sung to. The clearest implication is death, as the last verse refers to glimpses of "my wandering form out on the borderline between death and resurrection and the council of the pines." But what a death it is: "And when the sun comes trumpets from his red house in the east, he will find a standing stone where long I chanted my release, he will send his morning messenger to strike the hammer blow, and I will crumble down uncountable in showers of crimson rubies when I go."

Two albums followed - Tanglewood Tree and Drum Hat Buddha, each one better than the preceding one. Tanglewood Tree's first three tracks are better than the whole careers of most musicians, and Drum Hat Buddha is the rare album that may well avoid having a single clunker of a track. With Drum Hat Buddha, Carter and Grammer found themselves on the cusp of folk stardom, a minor sort of fame, but a real one nevertheless. They toured with Joan Baez, who later called Carter with the news that she'd played one of his songs, The Mountain, for the Dalai Lama. "He liked it," she happily reported.

Hold this part of the story. Linger here for a time. The growing success, the clarity that something is happening, that art and magic are occurring, together, inseparable. Imagine the two of them, equal partners, strapped into the tour van, loner Buddhist magician bards wielding a raw mythic power. I asked Tracy Grammer about the seeming contrast between Buddhist serenity and the tough-guy lonerism of country music. Her answer, in part, was "But don't be fooled. We were tough guys in our heads, and we were loners too. Especially in the van, traveling the long roads between gigs. But we were other things too. Buddhas. Babies. Sinners. Saints. Just like everybody is."

Stay there, because the alternative is Hadley. She has written and recorded exactly one song since Carter's death (although she has recorded versions of several unrecorded Carter songs and other covers). That song, The Verdant Mile, is one of the most heartbreaking recordings I have ever heard. Beginning with the plaintive "I didn't want to burn like this, so close to the bone, with no muscle left to carry it, this black bag of stones," the song reaches its crescendo in its third verse. "I miss you like I love the sound of blackbirds in the trees. I sit alone and wish that maybe one of you would visit me. But no matter how much seed I throw, what prayer I call out, I cannot bring a bird in from the field or make an angel come around." I have heard her speak, at concerts, of her pain at the fact that Carter really is gone - that he has not haunted her, but has moved on, has ascended. She does not speak of him as being dead in the atheistic no afterlife sense, but rather as having finally merged with the deep consciousness he could reach so far into.

But her pain is palpable. There is perhaps no way I can express the raw anguish of her talking about his death, save for linking to her words. And perhaps quoting a small segment: "Many are the moments when I see his dying face before me, replayed like a bad sample inside a warped beat, again and again and frustratingly again. You don't forget things like that, dying faces and last words. You don't forget the stupid things you said, those things which neither soothed nor saved him; you don't forget your idiotic optimism when you misread signs of life and death, mistook a deep last reflex breath for a return to life."

I hope she is doing better. I did not have the courage to ask when interviewing her. She, who brought the missing piece to Dave Carter's musical career, who gave him four years streaking across the sky, burning more brightly than imaginable, who has done so much. She is as entitled to her pain as she is to the joy she so evidently deserves.

And then there's me. Somehow cursed with being the missing link here, the authorial presence who has to bring all of these strands down to a coherent message. These people with their mythic lives, these video games, these ideas, all, through some pointless quirk of a blogging window, are my responsibility. It’s not fair or appropriate. I shouldn’t be the one telling this story. But I can’t not. It’s here, to be told. A flash of beauty arcing from heaven to Hadley, or, perhaps, the reverse.

My story started just under 20 years before Carter's death, half an hour away, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Nine minutes up the road from Hadley is Amherst Chinese Food, a fantastic Chinese restaurant that was my parents' favorite while they went to graduate school there. When my mother was in the hospital having given birth to me, Mr. Chang, the proprietor, tried to bring food to her room. My parents eventually had to make the rule that if you ate at Mr. Chang's for lunch and dinner one day, and then lunch and dinner the next day, you had to go somewhere else for lunch on the third day. But you could go again for dinner.

It was half an hour south of Hadley that I discovered video games, in 1984, on the Commodore 64. It was there that I sucked breath through cleft lip and palate, developed inexorably towards what I was. It was Chicago, on the other hand, where I discovered Dave Carter. Actually, I know I listened to "Gentle Arms of Eden" first in the basement of my parents' house in Newtown, Connecticut. That would have been Christmas, probably of 2001. But it wasn't until the fall of 2003 that I bought an album. Then, very quickly, all the others. When Tracy Grammer released Flower of Avalon, her solo album consisting primarily of versions of unrecorded Dave Carter songs, in 2005, I was already an avid fan.
Shortly thereafter, I moved to Florida. There, I saw Grammer in concert for the first time, in a little cafe on the coast of St. Augustine, Florida. I had already briefly corresponded with her over some edits to Wikipedia she made, in which she revealed some striking new information about Dave Carter, but did so on the Wikipedia page itself, falling afoul of policies on original research. After verifying her identity, I did what I could to help her out, which turned out not to be much.

There are other intersections. A stray black dog, escaped from an owner who had gotten him at a shelter, came into my life. I hated dogs, but somehow this furball was different. It was clear we needed each other. The previous owner didn’t disagree. Previously named Davey, I renamed him Krypto. Some time thereafter, I remembered a stray mention in the liner notes of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer's 2007 Christmas album that mentioned that an old black dog mentioned in one song was likely an avatar of Carter himself. Nothing. A steam of irrelevant coincidence. The thought has never quite left me. Like most thoughts about Dave Carter.

And then, a month or two ago now, I fired up Cowboy World to write a blog entry, and somehow, in amidst the digital bleeps, thought of Dave Carter. And had the idea for this entry. A three-stranded braid, wedding the strangely barren mythos of the game with the life and work of Dave Carter and my own experiences with that work.

Looking at it, what stands out is the sense of loneliness. That's barely surprising. Video games, in the NES era, were primarily one-player experiences. The cowboy myth is about loners. Loners are lonely. That's pretty axiomatic. But somewhere, out on abandoned plains, in the flickering headlights of a touring van, the banal wreckage of video games and American mythology sputters into life. You already know this. To hear one of Dave Carter's songs is just to confirm it. This is the best evidence of how he plumbs a mythic deep consciousness, whether you set it up in a Jungian-Campbellian model, or in the far more postmodern model that I think Carter ultimately does.

It is a model where the acceptance of multiple truths is not tantamount to the abandonment of the idea of truth. Where to speak, or, in their case, to sing, is not to proclaim but to perform. To embody an aspect of a larger narrator, and describe one facet of a thing. If we treat ideas as existent abstractions - if we treat, for instance, a number, or, for that matter, a myth as something that exists in some form other than the wetware of the human brain - then we are forced to contend with the fact that any idea that has ever been had is theoretically understandable in any human brain. That is, our ideas, memories, thoughts, and dreams - those things that make us up as individuals - are in a fundamental sense non-unique. Dave Carter's gift is... was... his ability to reach into that place just outside what the mind has thought of - that morass of thoughts that are conceivable but unthought. His ability to make a song that spoke from just past the realm of human experience, pulling us deeper into that undertow of mystery that underlies thought and speech

There is nobody who walks those plains who is not a loner. The shamanic path is necessarily one for those who transgress. There is irony here, given that Dave Carter understood better than anyone the way in which people are linked, that he could find something to admire in any religion, and at times wished he were a member of all of them.

Thought of this way, Tracy Grammer's posthumous revelation that Carter was pursuing a gender change should be unsurprising. A sad fact of our culture is that it never is. These are stories that don't get told. And a lot of them have far worse endings than Hadley.
I have the blessing of knowing some. The one I know best is that of my dear friend Anna, a truly beautiful woman I met in North Carolina. Smart, funny, insightful, and, as she goes through her transition, all I can think of are, unsurprisingly, the words of Dave Carter: "May you bloom bright and fierce."

Carter began hormone treatments a few months before he died. (I use the male pronoun because, at the time of his death, he was still presenting publicly as male, and because it is the pronoun Tracy Grammer still uses for him. Absent his voice, I defer to hers.) It was difficult for Grammer - they separated their living arrangements. But they were still partners in all things.

Grammer observed, and she's right, that his songwriting over the years with her shifted from songs about the ambiguities and difficulties of masculinity to a more... mournful, quiet approach. Where their first two albums brim with a sort of furious mythic fire, by Drum Hat Buddha his songs had shifted to, in Grammer's words, songs that "explore the frailties and failings of the human heart, the inability of one man to commit to one woman, the loneliness of AIDS, and spiritual relationships with either the goddess or Jesus." Perhaps unsurprisingly, these songs increasingly got given to Grammer to sing, and Carter spoke of his long-term plans to have her do all the singing.

The last album they were working on, a re-recording of some of Carter's songs from a solo album before he met Grammer, bucks this trend, but listening to it feels far more like a loving farewell to a part of Carter's life than anything. An album by someone with one foot out the door of the life he was living.

It's just that nobody knew what that would mean. Talking to Grammer, I learned that the last song Carter finished was "Phantom Doll," a song recorded by Grammer on Flower of Avalon. The song is, on the most simple level, about body image - a character who wishes to be seen as the woman she views herself as. "Raggedy Ann came out to play, kittened a thin disguise against the day." But, in characteristic Carter fashion, the song has a turn - first singing of how "in glorious dreams she walks outside her skin," but finally, in the last verse, making a turn. "Raggedy Andy wrote this song, scribbled it here where oceans meet the dawn." And we see, perhaps, the story that never got to be told.

Instead, on a hotel room floor, held by the woman he loved, Dave Carter collapsed of a massive heart attack after a morning run. I will, again, let her speak.
"Yesterday, shortly after he went unconscious, he came back for a lucid minute or two to tell me, 'I just died... Baby, I just died...' There was a look of wonder in his eyes, and though I cried and tried to deny it to him, I knew he was right and he was on his way. He stayed with me a minute more but despite my attempts to keep him with me, I could see he was already riding that thin chiffon wave between here and gone. He loved beauty, he was hopelessly drawn to the magic and the light in all things. I figure he saw something he could not resist out of the corner of his eye and flew into it. Despite the fact that every rescue attempt was made by paramedics and hospital staff and the death pronouncement officially came at 12:08 pm Eastern Time, I believe he died in my arms in our favorite hotel, leaving me with those final words. That's the true story I am going to tell."

And so, a little more than a year later, I found the strand of story. The story of a brilliant man who roamed the country singing songs that were magic. Who saw what others didn't, and knew that they could see it, and that he could show them.

And he did.

By this merit, may all beings become myth.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

First Principles (Destination: Earthstar and Destiny of an Emperor)


The essential tension between culture and identity can be oversimplified thusly: Culture is the general case, and identity is the specific case. Culturally, I belong to the so-called Nintendo Generation, defined by its intersection with a relatively narrow subset of games. Individually, however, I am defined, even in video gaming terms, by idiosyncratic focus both within and without that subset. For instance, The Adventures of Lolo, a game pretty solidly outside the canon of classic NES games, has had an outsized impact on my life compared to, say, Excitebike, a classic NES game that I cannot have played more than 15 minutes of.

The two games for today, Destination: Earthstar and Destiny of an Emperor, are not games I had played before. Both, however, are pretty good games, assuming you're someone other than me. I have in the past asked, mostly as a rhetorical question, what sort of person I might be if a different set of games had intersected with my life. These games seem as good an opportunity as any to ask this question in more detail.

Destination: Earthstar is a space flight sim game. For my part, I only got into three games of this genre in my life - Wing Commander III, IV, and Prophecy. And Wing Commander: Prophecy was crap. And for that matter, I played WC3 mostly with invincibility mode on.

Space flight sims, for me, have one significant advantage over ground-based flight sims, which is that it is a lot harder to crash your craft into the ground and die a horrible death. This is not enough to overcome the fact that I just don't like the genre that much.

The genre is based on the understanding and navigation of three-dimensional space. Interestingly, this is not something video games focus heavily on. Even modern games tend not to get too wrapped up in the dynamics of the third dimension, often restraining themselves to hallways and courtyards so that one rarely has to deal meaningfully with more than two dimensions. One can even go to a game like Super Mario Galaxy - a game primarily about running around on three-dimensional objects, and find far more levels that feel 2 and 2.5 dimensional than three dimensional.

Part of this is that the third dimension is actually kind of tricky. We don't think about it all that often. This may seem like an odd claim given that we live in it, but the fact of the matter is that we rely pretty heavily on gravity to simplify things for us. Most of our life is spent moving around on what's basically a 2-D plane. Thinking beyond that is hard for a lot of people. For instance, think of a two-story house you've spent a fair amount of time in. Think of the living room in it. What room is directly above it? What part of the basement, if any, is directly below it? This is, for most people, a fairly hard question. (My parents' bedroom, for what it's worth)

Flight sims in space involve moving through what is often an arbitrarily large region of three dimensional space, in which you have completely free motion except for the fact that you're bound heavily by physics, momentum, and direction. And, generally speaking, being shot at. This, combined with the fact that flight simulators are generally for the mildly obsessive, makes them an odd combination. Part of this is one of those moments where narrative and gameplay intersect. In order to explain why you are fighting in space, you need to posit a military to do the fighting.

Military fetishism depends on a valuation of arbitrary rules and structures. The military, when fetishized as a narrative device, becomes about the baroque structure of regulation-based ethics and procedures. Accordingly, piloting a space ship in a militaristic game involves a lot of persnickety focus on fuel, physics, maneuvering, and the like. This is very different from the fantasy of flight. But it's a coherent subgenre. Star Trek uses it slightly, but its real major appearance - probably the zenith of the subgenre - was Battlestar Galactica.

I adore BSG, but the larger culture eludes me. Battlestar Galactica appeals to me precisely because it's a terminus of that aesthetic. There is no glory left in the military in BSG. It consists of hollow rituals preserved in the name of a doomed effort to preserve the larger society. Its leaders are screwed up, often wrong, and never clearly and definitively right. It takes the space military aesthetic to its endpoint, and scares us with what it finds.

But it is only able to function because of things like Star Trek, Wing Commander, and, yes, Destination: Earthstar - things that establish the space military tropes that it deconstructs. These were never part of my identity - a vague trajectory in the larger culture I was aware of, but placed no value in. And looking at it, I feel a revulsion. The arbitrary structures of authority, fetishization of violence, and fact that the games are of the category that want me to spend an awful lot of effort to have fun are all counter to what I want out of my entertainment. And more to the point, this genre, aside from just not being fun, leaves me with a strong sense that the genre itself is morally bankrupt, privileging as it does acquiescence to arbitrary authority.

But this is where things get tricky. I know I didn't think of things in these terms growing up. I didn't focus on military space sci-fi because I didn't like it. I did focus on Borges and Doctor Who and comics because I did like them. There was no great mystery or secret. It was just a series of decisions I made that happened, over time, to add up to an identity. Which is a tough thing to say, because I believe firmly in aesthetic philosophy, in the fundamental link between ethics and aesthetics, and even in the fact that there is such a thing as a correct judgment of taste. I told my class the other day that Arthur Miller is a bad playwright - a statement I stand by as a matter of declarative fact.

On the surface of it, these two things are contradictory. How can I believe in the fundamental validity of an aesthetic philosophy whose rational basis is a back formation of an essentially arbitrary set of choices?

Unless, of course, the means by which a position is developed is irrelevant to its validity...

Destiny of an Emperor is one of the earliest Japanese RPGs to make it in the US. Japanese RPGs have, in the 20 years since the game came out, risen and, if not fallen, at least meandered in a vaguely downwards direction. Here, again, some history is in order. The RPG video game has a bit of a forked history. Actually, the RPG video game and the video game were almost, but not quite, completely indistinguishable for at least some of their history. There is a simple reason for this - video games and D&D developed simultaneously and in more or less the exact same Tolkien-obsessed subculture. (Jack Chick, if he knew this, would no doubt either take his website down or be an obnoxious hypocrite)

The result is that there is an unusually long history of RPG games. In America. A tradition based on, mostly, open-ended gameplay and the ruthless development of character stats. But many moons ago, by which I mean 1986, a Japanese programming team created Dragon Quest, a knockoff of American RPGs. That was a smash success, and led to a Japanese style of RPGs. The two styles were mostly distinct, with only occasional games jumping over, of which only Final Fantasy was an absolutely massive deal. And even that had only half of its games released in the US.

Destiny of an Emperor is one of those oddball games that made it out in the US. Adequate and playable. Characteristically of JRPGs, the focus is more on a small party and defined plot. Those that argue that video games are a viable narrative form usually point to these games, because they tend to have the most ornate and thorough plots of video games. That these plots are still overly simplistic stories that are written to include as many action sequences as possible, and that the gameplay on JRPGs usually aspires to mere mediocrity.

While Destination: Earthstar, looked at in hindsight, fills me with, if not dread, a strong sense that I object, Destiny of an Emperor elicits from me a sort of appreciative nod, an acknowledgment of the secret history it represents. I never got into Japanese culture. It was a shift in geek culture I missed - resisted initially out of nothing so much as a mild sense of laziness, and by the time I got around to realizing I was on the wrong side of a culture shift, the gap that had opened up was one I never felt like I could confidently bridge.

Amusingly, I suspect strongly from talking to those who are big on Japanese culture that the gap is one I could bridge without excessive work. This is mostly because the things that seem to me utterly alienating about the gap - figuring out the basic structure of Japanese narratology, for instance - are not actually things that many people on the other side of the gap have done. The depressing fact is that a staggering amount of the fetishization of Japanese culture is seemingly done without any particular investment in a systematic understanding of the fetishized object. (See also every mass ideology ever)

My larger point here is that, by all appearances, doing so would be worthwhile. And there are numerous cases of this. Secret histories deserving of uncovering, in amidst the dead ends and traps I evaded - secret histories I view as lesser. The nature of defining history in cultural terms is that this sorting is productive. Secret histories can be uncovered and excavated. The process is not the same as experiencing them. Nor is it empty.

But what is still a fundamental issue - one too complex for me to disentangle at this stage - is how I am doing this sorting. Some system must exist for me to be able to judge the worth of knowledge yet to be learned. Somehow, I am capable of choosing between militarism and Japanese narratology. How? And what standards or rigors can this judgment be held up to?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Nintendo World Order (Demon Sword and Desert Commander)

One of the greatest pleasures of being a postmodernist occultist academic is that there are actually people in the world who essentially believe me to be a super-villain. There is almost nothing quite as satisfying as sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea and my dog, petting him and watching a movie, and quietly being vilified by a substantial segment of the population as the living embodiment of pure evil.

As a result of this, one of my great guilty pleasures is insane occultist conspiracy theories. Which, I suppose, I should offer some favorite examples of. I adore Vigilant Citizen, in no small part for its slogan "Symbols rule the world, not words or laws," which is a charming example of accuracy hiding in a deeply improbably place. EnigmaTV remains a favorite, mostly due to this (NSFW) DVD cover. And of course there's Hollywood Insiders, who manage the difficult task of finding occult symbolism in Alan Moore comics.

It is in that spirit, then, that I bring you Demon Sword and Desert Commander, two games I will be talking about in my formal capacity as super-villain and ringleader of the New World Order. This will be the only formal reply that the Illuminati will be making to those who have caught on to our widespread use of occult symbols throughout the culture, so really, you should listen up closely. This entry could change your life.

First of all, because I know these two games are not on a lot of people's radar, let me save you guys the task of finding the major occult symbolism in them. Let me preface this with a quick cautionary note. You guys do an excellent job of finding occult symbolism. The problem is, the occult symbolic language is so broad that you get a lot of false positives. For instance, Vigilant Citizen - great job uncovering what we did with the Bank of America murals. That was really thorough. But the little digression about the Black Sun? Yes, you're absolutely right that the Black Sun, traditionally symbolized by Da'ath, the lost sephira, is the hidden counterpart to the golden dawn and that the Goetic magical tradition seeks to understand this lost form of knowledge through contemplation of the fundamental dualism of reality so as to ascend to godhod. Spot on. Unfortunately, the black sun's symbol - a black circle - is ridiculously common. So while you're spot on about the black sun on Bracken House, the one in the Denver Airport? That one's actually just a black circle. Sorry.

Which is to say, this is not a complete index of the occult symbolism in either of these games. It's just a complete index of the occult symbolism we actually intended in them. Now, video games were tricky for us. It took a long time for the graphics to get good enough to be worth it. You've no idea how hard it is to make a unicursal hexagram look good on the Atari 2600. So in the games themselves, we were a bit limited. We mostly had to work with the box art. On the NES, we could start working with title screens, and that was good. Take Demon Sword.

I'm really proud of this one. The forking sword was, if you'll excuse the self-pride, a real work of art. Totally useless as an actual weapon, right? Ah, but look - first of all, three sets of two prongs - a clear reference to the Kabbalistic tree of life. It also evokes the Ace of Swords in the Rider-Waite Tarot, and the lightning bolt image. Plus, you've got the basic symbolism of swords - representing Air and reason. So a demon sword is a clear reference to how we've perverted human reason and science, rendering the Lord's gift of reason and intellect into Satanic monstrosities that lead mankind astray. This is another reason the sword has six prongs - because in the Crowley-Harris Thoth Tarot, the Six of Swords is renamed Science, which is, of course, the most Satanic form of reason. So yeah. Basically, Demon Sword, right from its title screen, is an allegory about how science perverts faith. Awesome, right? Thanks.

Meanwhile, Desert Commander. Oh man. Once again, not to pat ourselves on the back too much, we nailed this one. Pyramid? Check. Black pentacle? Check. Aleister-Crowley-esque figure tracing an Eye of Horus into a checkerboard laid out over the desert? Check. Explosion that resembles the Chaosstar? Yep. Black sun in the gun of the tank? Uh-huh. That said, the propellers on the planes that are obviously in the wrong position causing them to appear to be the Thaumaturgic Triangle? Yeah, that one was the artist screwing up. We just wanted airplanes cause we thought they looked cool.

Now, of course, you could have figured all of that out. The last thing you needed was us to spell it out for you. Really, those last two paragraphs were just for people who might not be as keyed in to occult symbolism as you are. Not 9/11-Aware, as you so often put it. Sorry to insult your intelligence. So, having sorted all of that out, let's get to the really big question - the one none of your vast amounts of research into the occult (and it really is vast - you actually have more thorough dictionaries of occult symbols than we do!) has managed to come close to explaining: Why is the secretive cabal running the world going about sticking widely recognized occult symbols in silly video games? How does that advance our evil plans?

You've really got no idea here. The best you can come up with is something like this - the idea that symbols, when charged with will harnessed in a suitably occult fashion, can alter material reality. Which, of course, they can. Everybody knows that. So yes, it's absolutely the case that we could, if we wanted to, unleash a vast set of occult symbols in popular media, all charged with mystical energy to bring about a Satanic transformation of consciousness in the world. But as you guys love to point out, we're also really good at mind control. Why would we take the long way of, essentially, sigil magic when we could just control your mind, eh? And for that matter, if we wanted to unleash magical symbols into popular media, why would we pick recognizable and traditional occult forms? Why use the Proctor and Gamble logo, which everyone immediately recognizes as Satanic, when we could just use the Facebook logo. Even more widely seen these days, and unlike, say, the Target logo (an obvious reference to Baphomet), nobody knows it's Satanic. Not that, you know, we did that.

I obviously don't want to deny your central premise. After all, you've been so on target for the most part. (But seriously, Mr. Everard, the aliens that created the Kabbalah do not look like that) Which is to say, the answer to the question is still hidden in the secretly Satanic works themselves. Because, as I think we both agree, a symbol for something still contains the whole of the meaning of what it symbolizes. So if, as we are both stipulating, Desert Commander and Demon Sword is full of Illuminati symbols, one of the things we can interpret from Desert Commander and Demon Sword is the actual plot of the Illuminati, as every symbol contains the complete information of its signified.

Let's move beyond the box art then. Demon Sword is a fairly straightforward side-scroller. It suffers from what I have often described as sloppy controls - your character has substantial acceleration and deceleration to deal with, your attacks do not affect enemies intuitively, and the jumping mechanics... actually, the jumping mechanics are just about the only interesting thing about this game. Because your character can jump. Actually, your character can damn near fly. The easiest way to handle the levels, by far, is to just jump. Constantly. And hit occasional enemies out of the sky with your sword.

The message here should be completely clear to you lot. The alliance of the sword and the air is already implicit in basic alchemical symbolism. The claim is obvious - that human reason and intellect are the way through. Now, the question is whether this is a demon sword - i.e. that reason is going to lead you to ruin - or a sword that slays demons - i.e. that reason will liberate you. The title screen and box art suggested the former. But nothing within the game suggests that the religion being overthrown by reason is a Christian one. Indeed, the game is clearly set in Japan, and it is traditional Shinto demons that are being overthrown.

Reason, in other words, is being used to stop the very demons you usually assume we are working with. Let's turn now to Desert Commander. Yet another turn-based strategy game. (We need an acronym for this. YATBSG. No, never mind. We don't.) The desert in question is clearly the Sahara. So we're dealing with Egypt here. Egyptian mythology is integral to the Hermetic tradition, which traces its roots back to Hermes Trismegistus, a syncresis of Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth. These are gods of reason. Further investigation of the cover confirms this - the figure of the head divides the pyramid so as to form the alchemical symbol for air. So again, we are in the territory of reason. But here reason is expressed in the form of war - military tactics.

Reason, embodied by the sword, as an instrument of war against false gods. But the exact nature of this war is a somewhat tricky business. In the case of Demon Sword, it appears to be a war of destruction, with the goal being to overthrow the demons. In the case of Desert Commander, it is a war of conquest, with the goal being to possess the land of the gods. What, exactly, are we doing here?

Ask this question - is a monotheistic view of Christianity possible if one believes in the occult? Not if one practices it - that question is obvious. My question is subtler and perhaps more alarming. Can one who believes in the occult conspiracy theories we've been discussing also be a Christian in the evangelical American sense of that word? I would suggest that the answer is no, because no adequate solution to the Problem of Evil can be derived within this set of axioms. The only suitable solution for the Problem of Evil within the Christian tradition your conspiracy theories stem from is that evil comes from human weakness. But if the Illuminati is proceeding via mind control expressed via symbols, human weakness is not sufficient to explain evil. Evil, it seems, is capable of propagating automatically through symbolic spawning. In other words, if one believes in the occult as a source of evil, one renders evil as a sort of mind-virus - an evil meme.

But if we adopt this disease method of evil, God becomes strangely powerless. God offers little to no resistance against mind-virus evil. He seems mostly capable of giving his followers the ability to identify the mind virus. But most lists of occult symbols include the cross. In other words, in this view, God is wholly deprived of any symbolic methodology with which to combat the occult. To posit the existence of the occult in this fashion is, in other words, to delineate powers as inaccessible to God.

Consider that possibility. Occultism dethrones the idea of an authoritarian god. This does not dethrone Christianity, of course. It merely dethrones the forms of Christianity that envision God as little more than a vengeful sky fairy. So long as one envisions a form of Christianity in which human reason is capable of manipulating instead of simply obeying symbols, i.e. one in which the human faculties of reason and free will are given substantial power, occultism, even if it is rejected as evil or un-Christian, is not a significant threat, it's mere silliness.

This is our true demon sword. Our true goal. And to the many skeptics who (quite reasonably) point out that it is extremely unlikely that the pentagram under the White House will make the President into a servant of the Devil, I say only this - you miss the point of our methodical laying out of the symbols in the first place. The possibility of their working is only slightly more ludicrous than the possibility that we put them there in the first place.

But if our melange of symbols forms a labyrinth in which totalitarian gods can be imprisoned, but in which the glorious play of reason can soar.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ironically, I forgot 90% of how to play this game. (Deja Vu)

Any signifier as overdetermined as "Mother" is, due to the dense nature of semiotics, going to be linked to some oddball concepts. For instance, the fact of the matter is, when I think about my mother, I think about arbitrary and capricious punishment followed by death.

This is not a bad thing. Really, it's down to the fact that I grew up playing adventure games with my mother. Adventure games are one of a handful of genres of video and computer games to be, for all practical purposes, completely dead. Actually, off the top of my head, I can't think of another major genre of game that just upped and died, although, to be fair, I'm not actually spending too much time on the issue in favor of provocative generalizations.

There are many reasons the genre died - some of which I'll deal with later. But one of them, surely, is the fact that they are among the most fiercely abusive games to their players ever. I complain that MMOGs such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft are based on a system of play that involves delaying and deferring the actual fun parts of the game for as long as possible, making it, in effect, so that the player pays for the privilege of expending their labor to be allowed to have fun. I consider this unethical and abusive gameplay. It has nothing on adventure games.

There's an old joke of famous last words in Dungeons & Dragons. The first two items on the list are "I open the door" and "I don't open the door." The joke being that death comes without any real warning or ability to prevent it in D&D. D&D, as a historical phenomenon, evolved in tandem with adventure games, so the comparison is apt. Here, entirely from memory, is a collection of staggeringly easy or stupid ways to die in adventure games. I reiterate, this is from memory. I haven't played most of these games in over a decade. Some of these are clear obnoxious design flaws. Others, however, are just plain funny.

  1. Taking a cutting of a plant instead of digging it up. (Return to Zork)
  2. Failure to meticulously and carefully navigate a spiral staircase positioned such that you can't actually see what you're doing. (King's Quest IV)
  3. Failure to get back to the house in time, or failing to adequately cover your tracks while doing so. (King's Quest III)
  4. Walking in the water (King's Quest I)
  5. Failing to light a new torch quickly enough. (Shadowgate)
  6. Failing to save a mouse from a cat that only appears once on one screen, giving you exactly one chance to do it, and no clear warning that you screwed up. Both this and #1 instead penalize you far later in the game, requiring you to replay most of it. (King's Quest V)
  7. Making the mistake of thinking your sword can actually defeat anything in the game. (Any game where you have a sword.)
  8. Failing to adequately dodge a fireball that is launched at you while you are on an incredibly narrow platform with no possible way off of it and out of the path of the fireball (The Pandora Directive)
  9. Using your lockpick on yourself (Quest for Glory)
  10. Starting the car (Deja Vu).
OK, that one I didn't remember until I did it just now. In other words, there is basically now ay to predict that you are about to lose the game. The ethos is simple - save early, save often. I don't think there's a single adventure game I played with my mother without a save file called "We who are about to die" - a save file to be utilized whenever you are about to enter an area of such obvious danger that the odds of your not doing something that randomly kills you are basically zero. Somehow, improbably, we mistook this for fun.

I've done some (still unpublished) academic work on this genre, focusing on a sub genre of the adventure game, the narrative puzzle gallery. My contention in that work is that the genre existed because the games served as an effective allegory for the acclimatization of the culture to widespread digitalization. Once that moment passed, the games were strangely obsolete.

Add to this the fact that the bulk of the genre has not aged well at all. With the exception of Cliff Johnson's puzzle games, which are oddly undying, most of the genre is tough to love these days. The 7th Guest plays like the complete misunderstanding of CD-ROM technology it was, the Sierra and LucasArts games have largely become too esoteric, relying on a style of thought that is utterly foreign to contemporary players, and the rest of the genre wasn't even that good in the 80s and 90s to begin with, little yet today.

Today's game, Deja Vu, is the Nintendo port of a Macintosh adventure game, one of three in its series (the other two being Shadowgate and Uninvited). In a world of games that have not aged well, this game stands out for its complete lack of contemporary playability. Part of that is that a NES port of this game was staggeringly foolish.

I played the game with my mother on an original Macintosh - a black and white all-in-one in resplendent beige. This was in the earliest days of the sort of Macintosh interregnum. Steve Jobs's initial vision for Apple, which was more or less wholly responsible for the platform mattering at all, was partially abandoned when he was forced out of the company. Absent Jobs, Apple spent a decade or so collapsing. The original Macintosh was hugely influential - a shift in computing so massive that it actually took a decade for the rest of the world to catch up in the form of Windows 95. But absent the driver of the revolution, the Macintosh had no next move. Once Microsoft finally caught up with them, it was game over. The revolution was finally revived when Steve Jobs came back to Apple, launching the iMac and getting Apple to at least be moving again. It wasn't until the iPod that Jobs actually got Apple out ahead of everybody else, and not really until the iPhone and iPad that Apple finally returned to the position it had been at in 1984 or so, whereby its major product was not actually a given piece of electronics, but rather the very future of computing.

I mention this massive tangent because the central innovation of the MacVenture series that Deja Vu was a part of was the integration of the Macintosh's UI revolution into the gaming interface. Deja Vu was defined by its use of windows. Your inventory was a window on your desktop that you dragged and dropped to. A second window offered your character's viewpoint (the game was played in the first person). A third text window offered commentary and explication. Windows could be rearranged, drop down menus were in use, and you could even "clean up" your inventory a la the Finder in the Mac OS. The game was, in other words, a Macintosh game not just as an accident of release but in a necessary way.

This was (and is) unusual in games. The normal method these days is not exclusive titles, but multi-platform releases. A major release like Call of Duty 4 comes out for Mac, PC, PS3, XBox 360, Wii, and Nintendo DS - six very, very different platforms. (OK, five very different platforms, as the difference between the PS3 and the XBox 360 in any sort of design sense is basically nil.) Taken as a whole, the franchise adds cell phones to its list of platforms. This amorphous vision of gaming - putting the experience on any platform - is at odds with something like Deja Vu. A handful of platform-focused games do exist - the Wii, and Nintendo DS all have a non-trivial number of games that are unmistakably made for the technology they are on, and one assumes that the Kinect is going to evolve in that direction.

This was true in the NES era as well - virtually no Nintendo Games were made in a way that was conscious of the system. A handful of peripherals - the Zapper, the Power Pad, and ROB - each had a handful of games for them, but this was no more NES-centric than Guitar Hero is platform-centric - the peripheral is the thing being designed to, not the internal technology. Pouring through the NES library, one basically never comes across a game that feels as though it is firmly situated in the technology of the system. Part of this is the NES's essential lack of rivals. Once the 16-Bit era began, you got the dueling gimmicks of Mode 7 on the SNES and fast-moving, high action on the Sega Genesis, labeled as "blast processing" despite the fact that this term has no actual correspondence to any definable technological concept. But in the NES era, this sort of technological demonstration was unheard of.

What makes Deja Vu so strange, though, is that it is a technological demonstration - just not of the technology it's being played on. It's uniquely unsuited to being ported. Not only is its entire interface that of a system other than the NES, its graphics were designed to be high resolution black and white, not low resolution color. There is nothing even remotely natural about the fit of this game and this system.

Part of what is going on here is also the fork between computer gaming and video gaming - a fork that is about 90% resolved at this point. Back in the day, games tended to be either computer games or console games. A handful of games were both, but, like Deja Vu, they were ports well after the fact. Deja Vu didn't make it to the NES until 1990, five years after its release. It was old news - a legacy game. Likewise, console games would occasionally see PC versions. I remember a Mega Man game for the PC. It was, however, a cheap piece of shovelware as opposed to a game anyone actually spent time on.

These days the issue is basically settled though. With the exception, basically, of anything Blizzard puts out, computer gaming consists almost entirely of day-and-date ports of console games. The PC gaming market has more or less shriveled and died. There are a number of reasons for this, the vast majority of which are that games and PCs took opposite paths - games became more technologically complex, relying on expensive and heavy duty graphics cards. PCs became more and more cheap, moving towards the netbook or cheap Wal-Mart desktop. Such machines couldn't play state of the art games, whereas nearly identically priced consoles could. Thus those who wanted to game had virtually no incentive to buy a $2000 gaming PC when they could buy a $400 web and e-mail PC and a $2-300 console.

This is part of why the adventure game kind of upped and died. It's not a natural partner of console gaming. Prior to Deja Vu, it was nearly impossible to port adventure games to a console at all. Games like King's Quest I-IV, classics of the industry, were unplayable on consoles because they relied on text entry, i.e. on a keyboard. Point and click gaming as introduced in Deja Vu smoothed the path significantly, but even still, pointing with a directional pad is a much dicier proposition than pointing with a mouse. So when PC gaming went belly-up, so did the genre most associated with it.

These blind alleys of game design intersect heavily with blind alleys of memory in the way that always has been at the heart of the Nintendo Project. The question "what did I learn from games like Deja Vu" is actually a staggeringly difficult one, because it's next to impossible to disentangle them from the rest of my life. I still remember puzzles from games I haven't played in 20 years. They are distinctly responsible for why I still maintain a desktop computer - because they meant that I was spending hours on the computer before the Internet. The Internet was not what brought me to the life of 24/7 computer usage. It was just a significant change to what I did on the computer.

And, of course, there is my mother, which is where we began. The signifier is, without a doubt, overdetermined. The easiest split to make is this - I got my highbrow tastes and tendencies from my father, my lowbrow tastes and tendencies from my mother, and Doctor Who from both of them. Video games, then, were from my mother, and one of my major introductions was on her knee or the seat next to her, providing co-pilot instructions on a wealth of adventure games. An hour or two a night for years, we slashed our way through, by my estimate, a good two dozen of them over the course of five years or so. It was not the bulk of our interactions, but it and shopping formed the bulk of our private interactions - the things that were purely the two of us. My entire rhythm and mode of conversation with my mother is based on those games.

A wholly trivial example. Tonight there was a conversation lasting a good few minutes on the optimal way to dispose of about 2/3 of a cup of sweet potatoes leftover from Thanksgiving. The discussion consisted of much glaring, a few raised voices, and extensive analysis of whether it would be easier and neater to wrap it in a napkin or scrape it off a plate into the trash. To an outside observer (and I base this in part on the observations of my ex-wife, who found my interactions with my mother to be horrifyingly tense and stressful to watch) it no doubt looked like a ridiculous amount of energy and snark expended on absolutely nothing.

The truth is this - the sweet potatoes were no different from any of a thousand stupid little puzzles solved in adventure games. Do we do it this way or that? Which way has the lowest chance of killing us? Shall we save the game and try something stupid? (The answer is often yes, both in and out of adventure games.) And, as with any game, these discussions got animated, and still do. So yes. My mother and I are used to spending time carefully and loudly debating extreme pedantry as though our lives depend on it.

Because more often than not, growing up, they did.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Hiro Protagonist Jacks Into the Metaverse (Defenders of Dynatron City)

Dynatron City consists entirely of one-way streets that are approximately fifteen feet wide. This is about wide enough that five people can stand shoulder to shoulder across them. This might seem narrow for a street, as standard lane width ranges from 9-12 feet in the United States, making the streets all one-lane roads, albeit comfortable one-lane roads. However, vehicles in Dynatron City are, by all appearances, only about three feet wide, making fifteen foot roads more than adequate for any traffic purposes. Of course, no traffic actually exists. Indeed, the roads of Dynatron City are occupied entirely by pedestrian traffic, the vast majority of which is comprised of killer robots.

It is here perhaps worth making a brief digression to explain the notion of measurement in Dynatron City. Among the many consumer goods that do not exist within Dynatron City limits is the measuring tape. Accordingly, measurement in normal human terms is a subjective practice at best, and at worst is just messy and arbitrary guesswork. The best available measurement is the width of a human body. This is not because it's particularly exact, but because it is possible in the first place. Measurements are thus conducted by walking up and down a stretch and attempting to calculate how many human widths are there. This involves taking a step in a direction, then turning 90 degrees, then taking another step, turning 90 degrees, and counting the number of times this is possible.

All measurements are thus based on the assumption that a human being in Dynatron City is three feet wide. This is very possibly untrue. However we can still discern that a car, in Dynatron city, has roughly the exact same width as a person.

The reason that measuring devices are not sold in Dynatron City is that there is no discernible economic activity in Dynatron City. The only two categories of people are superheroes and killer robots, and their interactions are characterized more by attempts to kill each other than by commerce. Stores exist, but are simply full of killer robots. It is possible that, when there are no superheroes available to kill, the killer robots do engage in complex economic activity, but this is pure speculation, as the presence of any observer would necessarily remove them from this state and reduce them to homicidal rage again.

Although this is probably the best hypothesis, it remains an intensely unsatisfying one. For instance, one store is a florist. Although not a lot is known about the lifestyles of killer robots, it is genuinely difficult to picture them buying flowers for one another. It is theoretically possible that these shops instead exist for the other primary caste, superheroes, but in that case one would expect them not to be occupied primarily by killer robots. There is some evidence that superheroes are capable of conducting economic transactions within these stores once they are cleared out of killer robots, but the mechanism thereof is, to say the least, obscure.

Returning to the issue of the streets, although the cars in Dynatron City are generally compact enough to navigate the freakishly narrow streets, there is little to no evidence that they do, instead mostly sitting on the curb and being exploded from time to time, or, in a few rare cases, hurled by a radioactive dog. Even if they were to drive, they would find the experience harrowing. Most of this is due to the fact that the streets lack lane markers. This is generally unsuitable for urban traffic. A smaller portion is due to the aforementioned mobs of killer robots and superheroes fighting it out in the middle of the road.

This portion is smaller than one might expect due to what can only be described as the unique physics of Dynatron City. Objects are, for the purposes of their physical attributes, described not, as one might imagine, as three-dimensional objects moving along a two-dimensional plane, but rather as zero-dimensional objects that can switch among multiple one-dimensional lines. Objects that are on different lines will not collide under any circumstances. Due to a quirk whereby object width appears to exist despite the fact that it does not, it is thus often possible to believe wholeheartedly that one is going to collide with something when, in fact, one is completely safe. This quirk, while fortuitous for vehicle operators hoping to survive the chaos, is a considerable incumbrance for the superhero/killer robot residents, who mostly just have a very awkward time trying to shoot each other.

As previously indicated, the one-lane streets have cars and buildings only on one side of them. This strongly implies that the streets are one-way. This provides another possible explanation for the lack of cars, which is that, due to the nature of the streets, they are all clustered in the southwest corner of the city with no legal means of escape save, perhaps, becoming killer robots. (Note that this account of killer robot origins is pure speculation on the part of the author) The streets are further strange because they are shaped trapezoidally, with all sidewalks built at an angle such that the north and west sides of streets (where the shops are) are measurably narrower than the south/east sides. This effect might appear to be an issue of vanishing point perspective, but given that the city is, as previously mentioned, not actually a plane but a sequence of one-dimensional lines, the concept of "depth" is actually misleading. In truth, objects do not grow or shrink as they are moved among these lines, and the trapezoidal shape is not a marker of perspective, but merely a bewildering illusion.

There exists a television station in Dynatron City that is, of course, populated by killer robots. However, the bulk of the media is a single newspaper, the Dynatron Daily News, that describes local news, primarily of the form of what new superheroes are fighting with killer robots. The superheroes appear to use the paper as a way of telling how high killer robot activity is, and whether they should intervene, although the answer, quite frankly, is generally yes.

The politics of Dynatron City are the sort that give one pause. The city exists, by and large, to stage superhero/killer robot fights. Not only is this a poor approach to economic development, it is also relatively unhelpful when it comes to socio-political organization. The robots appear to have a select group of robots who serve as local bosses, but the position seems a ceremonial one ascribed to those with particular power - no obvious control or authority is afforded to bosses save, perhaps, that the killer robots will generally attempt to have their boss be the last one to die. The superheroes have less organization, although they are capable of cooperation.

Nevertheless, there must be some political order, simply because complex physical structures such as cities are not known to spring up independent of a social context. Still, absent any law (perhaps because the police station is also occupied by killer robots) the city serves as a sort of Objectivist/Libertarian paradise, albeit one with inscrutable physics and a looming threat of death by robotics. Or, at least, it would be if there were any meaningful identities to be had - the robots, however, are almost completely interchangable, and the superheroes, lacking much in the way of origins, motivations, or interests beyond robot-destroying, are at best a step above this.

I don't know about you, but I think this game would have made more sense if I'd described it as a postmodern Kabbalistic digital god or something...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Towards an Occultism of Video Games, Part II (Defender of the Crown)

Tarot cards are most associated with divination, which has given them both a cachet (as divination is among the most desired magical skills) and a disreputability. Rational Wiki, for instance, has numerous snide remarks to be made about Tarot, to say nothing of its massive takedown of astrology, but is relatively silent on the Kabbalah. The basic reason for this is simple - the ratio of people who have tried to predict the future, through any means, to those who have done a remotely good job of it is, basically, most people in the world to just about nobody.

Defender of the Crown, as it happens, is a 23 year old video game, and that's just in its NES port. Its future is minimal. Most of what is known about it exists in oral lore and is already getting towards fragmentary. That isn't to say we don't know a lot about it. It's just to say that not a lot of people know a lot about it, and not a lot of people are to make an effort to preserve that knowledge, and so the knowledge is rapidly evaporating. This is, for my purposes, fine - I have no desire to do the Doomsday Book of NES Games, interviewing developers and code-mining to understand algorithm. Such a text, although staggeringly valuable, is also staggeringly difficult and staggeringly boring to construct.

My point here is merely that the future of Defender of the Crown is minimal anyway, which poses an immediate challenge to the proposed task of applying the idea of tarot to it. Let us then make a slight modification to traditional understanding of the tarot, then, and suggest that the most effective divinations are ones that concern wholly what is, with the knowledge that the future is merely a projection from the present. Here we can minimize hypothesis and reduce the potential impact of projection. The question is then twofold - whether this approach provides a stabler foundation for Tarot (though I would suggest it is an approach that is profoundly non-radical to a significant swath of Tarot enthusiasts) and whether this approach allows Defender of the Crown to serve its appointed metaphoric role.

Some specifics that will be of interest primarily to people familiar with the Tarot (the rest can honestly skip this paragraph). I used the Touchstone Tarot and a more or less traditional Celtic Cross spread, although I have somewhat idiosyncratically adapted that spread over time. The Touchstone deck follows the Rider-Waite-Smith tradition of decks with minimal but significant departures (all more or less justifiable to my mind given the already illusory authenticity of the Rider-Waite deck). References will abound, however to Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot, which remains the culminating deck in the Golden Dawn tradition and is more explicitly tied to the Kabbalah than the Rider-Waite-Smith tradition.

1: Five of Cups.

This card, on its most basic level, represents loss and mourning. Traditional approaches to the card note first that although the image is one of despair, with three cups tried and discarded, two cups remain untouched.

This is a card of living death. Mourning is itself an act of profound narcissism in which one inhabits imagined presents untouched by death. Its central insanity is that it is only the possibility of death that creates the possibility of communication. In other words, if the mourned-for person were restored or restorable, not only would the mourning disappear, so would the reason for loving the person enough to mourn. Only through the existence of death do we have the ability to desire.

As a living death, the card exemplifies well the phenomenological position of the vast majority of 1980s video games. As I already said, Defender of the Crown is in a position of living death - being forgotten about at a rate faster than it is being understood. Here the balance of cups - that most have been discarded but some are untried - is profoundly significant, in that the act of mourning is being carried out after the peak of the experience. It is a memento mori within the card - a reminder of the fact that death is inevitably approaching, and that this fact is, in the end, what you are mourning for.

2: The Magician

Where the previous card describes Defender of the Crown's internal understanding of its situation, this card represents that which opposes it - that which it understands as the external. Here a brief digression on the basic structure of the Tarot is necessary. The deck is divided into 22 Major Arcana and 56 Minor Arcana. The Minor Arcana are subdivided into four suits, Wands, Cups, Swords, and Discs/Coins/Pentacles (depending on the deck), representing the classical elements of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth respectively. These suits consist of ten numbered cards (which are understood in most occult traditions as corresponding to the sephiroth) and four court cards (which we'll deal with later).

So the Five of Cups was the watery portion of Geburah. The Magician, on the other hand, is of the Major Arcana, and exists not as a partial representation of a sephira, but rather as a complete representation of the link between two sephira. Thus on the whole, in Tarot, the Minor Arcana are more important than the Majors, but any given Major is more important than any given Minor.

The Magician balances Binah and Kether, and is in one sense a proxy for Chokmah. The Magician is that which acts - the decisive transmutation of will into event or action. But whereas Chokmah is the absolute and primal idea of action, the Magician is its embodiment - it is not action, but that which acts - the actor, if you will. In terms of video games, and the current situation, the message seems straightforward - Defender of the Crown's position of terminal mourning is created by the actor - in this context, the player. Which makes sense. The central issue of Defender of the Crown's slow slide into mystery is that its players are by and large moving on, and without players there is nothing.

But tellingly, it is not the lack of players that opposes the Five of Cups - it is the archetypal player. In other words, this process of moving on and abandoning the old is central to what a video game player is. This is the death drive within video games - the fact that pleasure in video games is pleasure in beating them and abandoning them - artistic pleasure is the pleasure in destroying the pleasure-giving object. (This is true for most art - a voracious reader is nothing but someone who destroys the ability of as many books to give the initial pleasure of understanding and comprehension as possible)

3: Queen of Cups

And now we are forced to confront the court cards. There are two basic understandings of these cards. The first is the Rider-Waite-Smith understanding, in which they represent categories of people defined by stages of interaction with their elemental concepts. The lowest level, the Page, is the initiate. Then comes the Knight, the active, perhaps overly unrestrained force. Then the Queen, who has internal mastery of the element, and finally the King, who has dominion over the element. The Queen of Cups is, in this understanding, one with an internal mastery of water.

The second is Crowley's understanding, in which the Page is renamed the Princess and assigned the Earthly part of the element. The Knight is renamed the Prince and is the Airy part. The Queen remains the Queen and is the Watery part, and the King is renamed the Knight and is the Fiery part. Thus the Queen of Cups is, in this understanding, the Watery part of Water, which is to say, really, really wet.

Water, in the Tarot, is associated with emotion. We already established last entry that the emotional component of video games is most associated with personal memory. That the past of Defender of the Crown (which is what the third position indicates) is represented by internal mastery of this is thus straightforward - Defender of the Crown is in fact a game I played as a child.

My memories of it are not particularly fond. Although not out and out a turn-based strategy game, it is a heavily strategy-centric game with an aggressive complexity that makes it a bit of a heavy lift for a nine-year-old. The dueling and combat mechanisms were as fascinating as they were sloppy, the purpose of the game was obscure, and most attempts at empire building came to a crashing halt early on. It was never a game I played for long for the simple reason that I got slaughtered with wondrous rapidity whenever I tried.

And so the game was filed away as part of my past - one of many speedbumps on my road to not really liking massive strategy games that aren't called Civilization II. And I'm really pretty down the line insistent on that. I recognize that people say that the new versions of Civ are just as good if not better. I don't care. I know how to play Civ II, and I haven't gotten good enough that I can beat the computer on advanced difficulty levels, so why would I move on from it? After, you know, a decade.

This, then, is internal mastery of the game in my personal mythology (which is where water intersects with the magic of video games). But it is not external mastery. I never became the ideal Magician for this game. This is my role in its death and mourning.

4. Nine of Wands

This card represents an apex of power, with the fiery nature of wands making itself, among other things, a natural metaphor for power. (Swords, which may on the surface seem like the more natural metaphor for power, are less so, for reasons we will discuss shortly) As the peak of power, the Nine of Wands offers one major concern - from here one can only go down, and thus must be tremendously vigilant.

In this position, the card refers to emerging factors. This seems strange on the surface - after all, everything we have seen so far points to the declining nature of Defender of the Crown. How can its zenith be emerging if it is already declining? But this is merely a trick of equivalency. Defender of the Crown is becoming less popular, and knowledge about it is being lost. But wands are neither about popularity (if anything that would be Cups or Coins) nor knowledge (that'd be Swords). Wands are about will - about force and power. Here we reach one of the paradoxes of the decline of the NES that underlies and motivates this project - the fact that in the steady decline of the NES from its massive heights of fame, we have the makings of myth. The fact that the NES was once so prevalent that "Nintendo" and "Video Games" were synonyms, but that now knowledge of this era is rapidly dissipating is why our collective past can turn to myth.

The idea of caution and of a decline into chaos is further echoed in the plot and theme of the game, the Norman conquest of Britain and the messy wars that ensued. The game opens with news that the crown has been stolen - i.e. that the stability of the peak has been shattered. The Nine warns of potential future conflict. For a strategy game, this is to be expected.

5. Nine of Swords

The figure on this card wakes up, as though from a bad dream, the peaceful night impaled upon this rain of swords. A black dog stalks the shadows. Oh dear. The swords suit represents reason, traditionally. This card, then, is the infringement of reason upon dreams - the harsh light of day, if you will. The gold associated with the Swords suit (and with the sun) here takes its most negative aspect.

This card is in the position of the foundation - the basic strengths that Defender of the Crown possesses. It is a strange card to see here, though in Tarot, by the nature of randomness, these things do happen. In this case it is intelligible - as I noted in the Queen of Cups (a card whose position is linked to this one - the past and base strengths are, if you will, allied, and both cards form starting points of the two lines that cross the first two cards in the Celtic Cross spread) this game has a very rough learning curve. The harsh awakening of the Nine of Swords and the frequent total destruction of your armies for little to no reason reveal more than a slight resemblance.

Traditionally one notices when multiple numbers of the same suit arrive in a reading. In this case, 9 is associated with Yesod, and so there is not much mystery to its prevalence.

6. The Chariot

I confess, I winced when this card came down, because I initially thought it was going to completely screw up the line of thought I was figuring out over the first five cards. The Chariot, on the surface, seems an intensely simple card. It is forward-driven energy, a sort of ultimate expression of wands, will moving forward in conquest. And that surface reading seems deeply contradictory here - although wands are an emerging factor for Defender of the Crown, the Nine of Wands expresses a far more tempered and cautious vision than the Chariot seems to.

Furthermore, this card has to be understood primarily in relationship with the previous - somehow the harsh difficulty of Defender of the Crown is what enables this conquest. That makes little to no sense. Let's return to the superficial nature of the Chariot. This is a card where it is easy, in learning about the Tarot, to sum up quickly and move on. The card almost seems to blaze past - it arrives, it is recognized, and one moves on. But what if that superficiality is understood as part of the meaning of the card?

In this case, The Chariot can be understood as a sort of early modern electron - that which moves so fast as to make viewing it completely not only difficult, but impossible. The Chariot is the exertion of power, yes, but it is more accurately described as that part of power that is overwhelming, that causes us to get swept up in the current and dragged along. An intense and primal swiftness.

This is an integral part of spinning the detritus of the NES into myth. I stress, again, probably too far in the entry to help for some people, I do not write the Nintendo Project to be completely and thoroughly understood by any given reader. I write the Nintendo Project so as to be extremely difficult to read, though, ideally, not because I'm being a pompous and irritating git, but because in that difficulty comes depth. These new myths are very, very hard to catch - dense with information. They are like suns - a point that will bear fruit in a few cards. This is the nature of what remains of Defender of the Crown as knowledge about it falters. It seems to me relatively unlikely that the actual ROM for Defender of the Crown is going to be lost. Instead it will become an artifact - an oddity in a folder of ROMs.

Here we can tie in the Nine of Swords. Imagine, in ten years, someone poking at a folder of NES ROMs. They come to Defender of the Crown. The game is going to kick their asses. Is it intriguing? Yes, but so are a hundred other games in the folder. The truth of the matter is that most NES games are bad. That's part of why the Nintendo Project has had to adapt to its current esoteric form - as a reaction against the tedious numbness described in the earliest entries. And so, through its difficulty, Defender of the Crown is quickly set aside in favor of other games.

But this decision is rarely one of complete rejection. There are a handful of games that are actually just truly, unbearably awful. There are many more games tat are interesting, but not quite interesting enough to be classics. Games like Defender of the Crown that gesture towards some higher glory, but not with enough force to make us pursue them. They streak by, like a chariot, off to someplace glorious that we do not get to follow.

7. Queen of Wands

Here we move into the second portion of the reading. The first six cards form a set of three two-card oppositions. Situation/Opposition, Past/Emerging, Base/Height. These next four cards provide an alternate narrative of the themes in the first six. The first of these four symbolizes the subject of the reading - not, as the first card does, their situation, but they themselves.

The Queen of Wands, an internal mastery of fire, is easy enough to explain here - on the verge of turning to myth, Defender of the Crown, even as it loses its external force, finds a certain mythic power within. This is a stable situation. In many ways, it is the resolution of the mourning marked in the first two cards - yes, Defender of the Crown is dead, but in death it has found a certain measure of power.

8. Ten of Coins Reversed

I see, somewhat grudgingly, that it is time to deal with card reversals. Honestly, I'm lucky to have made it seven cards without dealing with this damnable pit of a concept. It is entirely possible that reversals are the single most contentiously muddled issue within the Tarot - moreso than the position of Strength and Justice, moreso than Crowley's renamings, or the placement of the Fool, this is something that everyone seems to have some position on, usually one unique from everyone else. For the most part, opinions on reversals can be lumped into three categories.

1) Reversals are an oddity of shuffling. Turn the card rightside up. Problem solved.

2) Every card has two meanings, so the deck is better understood, really, as a 156 card deck that is helpfully condensed into 78 for ease of shuffling.

3) Reversed cards are not different meanings, but rather exactly what they appear - inverted or blocked meanings. The normal meaning of the card is still in play, but so is some complication or issue that clouds it.

I am of the third school.

The Ten of Coins is, on one level, a card of material fulfillment. The figures on it are well-off, but not opulent - there is no gaudy and ostentatious finery here. An old man writes, seemingly happy, as his family surrounds him. This position represents family and friends normally - an odd concept for a video game.

It may be more instructive to turn towards the more esoteric Tarot, and particularly Crowley's Thoth Tarot. In that deck, the Ten of Coins is the final card, and represents the lowest, material form of spiritual energy. Through it, and particularly through the mediation of Mercury, there is the potential for the recapture of spiritual energy - the possibility for the bottom to reach back up towards the top and change the descent of spiritual energy into the ascent of man.

That is a fair enough description of the Nintendo Project, certainly, but why is it inverted, and why does it link to family and friends? This brings back into focus some of the difficulties posed by The Chariot. If the mythic nature of the NES is dependent on its hyper-density and on the necessary obscurity of individual games, then the two meanings of the Ten of Coins are seemingly in conflict. Although the recapture of spiritual energy through the NES is certainly possible, doing so puts individual games in an uneasy position. What gods shall be atop this 8-Bit Olympus? What gods shall be relegated to obscurity and mystery cults? For all the spiritual strength we have found throughout this reading, the inversion of this card is a stark reminder - we are still dealing with marginal cultural detritus here.

9. The Star

There is a paradox to this card wrapped up in an intense beauty. The paradox is its singularity - The Star. There are few enough stories in which a single star plays in. Stars are rarely individual. Instead we usually understand them as part of a tableau of sky. They do not provide meaningful light - indeed, they are essentially defined by the ease with which the light of the sun blocks them out.

And yet, this card tells us, they are beautiful. And we know this - the colloquial meaning of "star" in the context of "rock star" or "movie star" tells us that, for all the faint flicker that the concept entails, there is a true glory in it.

We know, intellectually, that every star is in fact a sun. A dense nuclear fusion reactor compressing gas into heavier and heavier elements. But we have no room for more than one of these titans. The rest must be reduce to stars. Or, perhaps more accurately, become stars - who is to say whether this is reduction or ascension.

The position here, hopes and fears, captures this nicely, as becoming a star is both a moment of profound hope and profound fear. It is also worth commenting that Chokmah, the ultimate and primal form of action and energy, is astrologically represented by the whole of the zodiac - i.e. stars.

10. The Lovers Reversed

This is a many-faceted card. The facet that springs most clearly to mind, however, is its representation of the Garden of Eden, and specifically the Fall of Man. Alan Moore makes a series of staggeringly brilliant leaps on this subject, noting that the fall of man and the genetic descent of man from primordial life share an intensive similarity. The Fall of Man is the knowledge of sex and death - the acceptance of mortality and desire in exchange for the possibility of progress. We return here, then, to the theme of mourning set up in the first two cards. Defender of the Crown is dying. Death is a form of progress.

But the card is reversed. If the Ten of Coins is the final material form - the end of the fall of man, and we are now entering the recapture - the ascent of man to the heavens, then this makes sense. The Ten of Coins's reversal and then this card, in the position of the final outcome of this problem. Our fall is complete. Now, in our mourning, we ascend.