Saturday, March 27, 2010

When We Don't Play Games (Bandai Golf Challenge Pebble Beach, Bandit Kings of Ancient China and Barbie)

Thus far this has been a blog about playing video games. That necessarily changes now, for the simple reason that I did not in any meaningful sense play any of these three video games. More accurately, I stared at each of them in frustration. For the appointed half hour. Unable to make them work right. At all. For three different reasons.

First we have Bandai Golf Challenge Pebble Beach. This is a golf game. I am not very good or very fond of golf games, but I do understand the basic mechanism - you hit golf balls with golf clubs towards holes on golf courses. It is that verb at the beginning, hit, where this game goes terribly wrong for me, because half an hour of trying yields only swinging my club in the air like I'm Craig Bellamy. (One of you, if that, understood that reference. You are welcome.)

Not playing a video game is a strange experience. By this I mean actively not playing - the sort of not playing that requires an extended sit-down with the game. It is sort of like playing cards, only when your turn comes you sit, stupefied, staring at your cards realizing you have absolutely no idea what is going on. And none of the other players tell you what you should do. Or even comment to complain that you're doing it wrong. They just look at you, puzzled, silently judging you.

Bandit Kings of Ancient China manages to reveal a lot with its title. Video game titles have a strange art to them, as we have already seen. This title is a satisfying exhaustive list of the contents of the game. Bandit Kings. Ancient China. It does not describe what these Bandit Kings are going to do, and yet there is somehow a sort of suggestion there. One has the funny feeling that the Bandit Kings might not all get along. Though to be fair, I never made much of this, because Bandit Kings of Ancient China is a genre of game that is, shall we say, not my favorite - turn-based strategy.

This is strange of me, I know. Mostly because strategy games have some of the most interesting depth and nuance of any genre of games. The problem is that, frankly, I like to pick up my games and play them. This is a huge problem with modern video games, where there are often 10, 15, even 30 minutes of gameplay before you get to the part that is advertised as fun. This generally happens when one inadvertently crosses from rewarding success to punishing lack of success. It is one thing to make the final level of the game an epic series of jumps and dodges that puts everything before it to shame. It is another to make the first level a boring, turgid drag.

That is to say, the games willfully suck for a while to make you earn the fun. To my mind, I earned the fun when I handed $50+ to the nice man at Gamestop. Now pay me my fucking fun.

The problem with strategy games is that, by their nature, they have a very slow ramping up. They require a lot of dedicated learning of controls and interactions, slowly yielding up additional pleasures and nuances the more you play them. They are the fine wines of video games. I respect them. When I enjoy them, I enjoy them for decades. (Literally. I will still play Civ 2 happily and eagerly.) But man, the tannins on that first sip are a hurdle. And so I readily admit - Bandit Kings of Ancient China may be a great game. That great game does not take place in the first 30 minutes of play, however.

And then there is Barbie. I would be lying if I said I had high hopes for Barbie. And that lack of hope was well rewarded. Here is a complete inventory of what I did in Barbie within the first
30 minutes of play.
  • Encountered a sentient tennis racket that hurt me if I walked past it and was undodgeable.
    • Encountered a second similar tennis racket.
    • Encountered a wall of boxes I couldn't jump over.

    That's all I've got for you there, really.

    Thursday, March 25, 2010

    I pushed through the screen door and I stood out on the porch thinking (Bad Street Brawler and Balloon Fight)

    I have commented in the past that video games are a poor medium for narrative because, truth be told, most narrative is not based on taking breaks for fight scenes with obsessional frequency. In truth, this is ever so slightly a misrepresentation - a fight, after all, is defined primarily by struggle and tension. This is what we all learned watching Fight Club - after we learned not to talk, I mean. Fights are long, brutal occasions. "A fight will go on as long as it has to."

    I got into two fights in school. One was after school, at some event or another. Several kids were playing on top of a cement structure of some sort. One, named Greg, pushed me off. I fell on a rock, picked the rock up, and threw it at him. What followed can best be described as "me running like hell as he chased me down, and when that failed to keep working for me kicking hard towards his groin." The official score as recorded by people more popular than I was "Greg kicked the shit out of me." In my view, it was a draw.

    Video games are rarely about an extended struggle. Rather, they are about a vast sequence of enemies that are taken out quickly and in rapid succession. The video game is either about a death by a thousand paper cuts, or about simply fighting perfectly for a reasonably long stretch because one hit will kill you. With Greg, on the other hand, it was a far more extended affair - fast moving, but defined by minute attempts to gain physical dominion over the other.

    Bad Street Brawler belongs to a more or less abandoned video game genre called the Beat-em-Up. This genre is one of those wonderful things that does exactly what it says on the tin. You walk in a more or less straight line. Hordes of enemies mob you, often from both sides. And then... you beat them up.

    I had exactly one fight like this, and I forget who it was with. It was in gym class. Someone provoked me somehow, and I charged them. They landed a single sucker punch right in my unguarded face, and that was the end of that.

    To call that fight unsatisfying is an understatement. Perhaps whoever the jerk was enjoyed it more than I did, but honestly, I suspect it was kind of pathetic all around. This is perhaps why the beat-em-up is a basically dead genre. Nevertheless, there exist some things that Bad Street Brawler does that are unusual.

    1. Bad Street Brawler was one of two games to be designed for use with the Power Glove. In a neat bit of symmetry, in the classic film The Wizard, Jackey Vinson's character proclaims his love for the Power Glove on the grounds that it makes him feel so bad. (Fun fact - the love interest in The Wizard went on to be the lead singer of Rilo Kiley)
    2. Bad Street Brawler restricts you to a different set of two moves in each level. This has the practical effect of altering the difficulty of the game not by adding new enemies but by removing your ability to hurt them and replacing it with the ability to, for instance, spend an inordinate amount of time winding up a punch while they walk up and murder you.
    3. At the end of each level of Bad Street Brawler, you throw all the weapons you collected from your enemies in a dumpster. You can see in the screenshot above how you are throwing a very nasty looking ball and chain away in the dumpster. This is so next level you can trip people instead of hitting them with a giant steel ball.
    Where fighting is defined by a sort of intensely combative intimacy (there's a word we should set aside and pull out later) of physical tactics and punishing brutality (the best fight scene ever is in season 3 of Deadwood, and if you go and watch the show you will know exactly which one I mean), Bad Street Brawler is defined instead by a sort of lengthy tedium - each individual brawl a mere distraction punctuating the long walk from Point A to Point B. It is not so much fighting as counting pavement stones with your fists.

    My father, in his time, got in only one fight. In it, he simply continually blocked his assailant's punches with his heavy bag of books until his opponent had sufficiently pulverized his hand that he called it a day. This is perhaps the most authentic fight described here.

    Balloon Fight is, despite its lack of actual, you know, fighting, is considerably more accurate in its depiction of a fight. There are essentially two games in Balloon Fight. In one, you attempt to take down enemy balloonists by popping their balloons without allowing them to do the same to you. In the other, called Balloon Trip, you try and fail to successfully navigate an ocean above which flies huge patterns of deadly ball lightning. There is not what you would call a "reason" why you would want to fly over this ocean. It's there, you have two red balloons, so why wouldn't you. Besides the IMMINENT DEATH, obviously.

    I have thought about the ethics of the playground fight as a parent. I am not one yet, but I will be someday. And I will raise a geek. And like all geeks, shit will be bad at times, and there will come a point where my kid has to decide whether a fight is in order. What fights are worth having? Neither of mine were - both were stupid situations I instigated through a short temper and a lack of ability to deal with the consequences thereof. My father's might have been. J. Michael Straczynski likes to put the line "Never start a fight, but always finish one" in just about everything he writes. (Or at least in both Babylon 5 and Changeling, which are otherwise quite different) This is perhaps good advice, but on the other hand, what do you do with a fight you're not sure you can finish. Does it behoove me to teach a kid how to survive a fight in the event that one is forced upon them? Or should I let them get beat up in the hopes that the moral upper hand will be of some value to them later?

    Balloon Trip is serviceable if silly. The actual Balloon Fight, though, has in it a certain ghost of combat, if you will - an extended set of tight, tactical maneuvers in which you try to find and
    exploit the upper hand. It is not quite a good game - its classic status stems entirely from Nintendo's strange obsession with releasing it over and over again. In practice, the controls are
    awkward, the obstacles cruelly arbitrary, and the value of high ground too overstated. But it has somewhere underneath it the satisfying form of a good fight - a struggle worth having.

    I still don't know, however, what that means.

    Sunday, March 21, 2010

    John Galt has been Kidnapped by Ninjas (Bad Dudes)

    Tomorrow, Barack Obama will sign the most substantial health care reform since at least Medicare, if not in memory. It is worth reflecting, at this particular moment, that the headlines tomorrow will not read that the President has been kidnapped by ninjas. This is perhaps a good thing, as I doubt that I am a bad enough dude to rescue the President. This is something I would suspect just on the abstract - truth be told, I am not a particularly bad dude. If ninja rescue is in order, I am not your guy. But playing Bad Dudes has largely hammered this fact home - I am a spectacularly non-bad dude.

    Politics, as Bismarck noted, is the art of the possible. Video games are similar in their exploration of a limited sphere of rules. A goal that can only be accomplished through a complex and perpetual negotiation with the system. Give and take.

    Within video game criticism there is the view of digital absolutism. That is, video games are defined by their digital sanitariness. Button is pushed or not pushed. Jump is made or not made. 1 or 0. Binary.

    For a time, my politics were similar. We all, I think, go through these periods. Some of us never exit them, holding to the strange belief that Ayn Rand is remotely sane through our entire adult lives. Others change. I have come, over time, to see politics as a messy, entangled thing of imperfections. An art of the possible, in which necessarily contradictory purposes are flung at each other in a system where forecasting is nigh impossible and yet something has to get done anyway. Freedom vs governmental control, economic growth vs lifesaving, depth of health care vs having health care in the biggest crises. Take your picks.

    When the President is kidnapped by ninjas, the ninjas that he is kidnapped by are simple creatures. This is the beauty of that plotline. It is the ur-plotline for video games, in that it promises only straightforward engagement. The ethics of an individual mandate and its associated costs for free enterprise and small businesses do not play into this. Kicking ninjas in the face plays into this. Even the source of the assignment, the generic yet cool military guy, points to a ruthless dualism at the heart of this scenario. 1 or 0. Bad enough dude or not.

    But the simplicity of this fragments quickly. Hundreds of thousand of minute decisions flood the zone. Top path or bottom. Guy on the left, guy on the right. What the fuck do I do with this asshole who is breathing fire at me.

    The ethics of political engagement were always more complex than the Randian Prime Movers. And looking at our nameless narrator, one wonders why he himself is not a bad enough dude to rescue the President. He looks the part. And for that matter, why the fuck isn't he giving me a gun, or perhaps a fighter jet with which to rescue the President. Why am I sent, alone and unarmed, against a horde of ninjas to rescue the President?

    I am not a bad enough dude to rescue the President because the social order does not permit that self-definition. By asking me to be a bad dude, the social order sets me up for failure. The game could rescue its own damn President. It exists purely to invite me to fail at the arbitrary and artificial task it has set out for me.

    If you have to ask who John Galt is, he's not you.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010

    The Only Time Travelers Convention You'll Ever Need (Back to the Future and Back to the Future 2 and 3)

    The Nintendo was a social currency as a child. I had one, and I was good at having one - Super Mario Bros 3 before anyone else had it. Good taste in games. Skill. I knew my shit. All I lacked was a clearly defined circle of friends in which to spend this currency.

    It is not that I was a completely unlikable geekshit in elementary school. I mean, I may have been. But I had friends. My memories are more of video games than, you know, actual human beings. By which I mean that I actually don't remember who's birthday party I was at when I was first exposed to Back to the Future. Actually, I remember this event so hazily that I can't pin down with any certainty that the birthday party had *anything to do* with Back to the Future. The memories just pin together vaguely in my mind. And it might have been a going away party. (Isn't memory great)

    Back to the Future is one of my earliest memories of trying to catch up on something. I know I saw 3 in theaters. So we must be around 1989, 1990 here. But I also know I became thoroughly aware of having missed the original Back to the Future. Which does not qualify as a surprise, as I was three when it came out.

    But I'm pretty sure I encountered the series at a party. I encountered a couple of games there - most notably Mike Tyson's Punch-Out, probably the most classic NES game I never owned due to my father's disapproval of Mike Tyson. (Hopefully there's a game down the list where we can talk about Trick or Treating, because that there is some hilarity) This formed my one marginal exposure in childhood to gaming as a social activity - something that has become an increasingly large part of video gaming in my adult life in a way that remains off-putting to me.

    The thing about video gaming is that it is a spiritual practice. Never mind the immersion crap. On the level of play, on the level of mechanics, to play a video game is to wire yourself into a system, and thus to confront the disjunct between self and other. Video games teach us the limits of physical incarnation.

    I have never worshipped in groups.

    Bad video games are more of a spiritual practice than good ones. A good one serves as cultural currency. I could speak to my friends of Super Mario Bros. Because everybody buys a good game. A wretched game is experienced privately, inwardly. Back to the Future as a movie may have been an initiation into cultural practice. As a video game, it's a torturous experience I'm glad I missed - a more or less unplayable run down a street trying to dodge generic obstacles. Playing it, I have no sense whatsoever of why the hell it was a Back to the Future game. I have not seen the movie in years, but I do not recall regular encounters with curbs of death and with men holding sheets of glass to trick you into running into them.

    The second game, featuring parts 2 and 3, is another one of those games at the maddening limit point where I suspect the games might secretly be good, but they're not quite good enough for me to beat that information out of them when I could go on to the next post. Here is, perhaps, where the community would be valuable - even a cave troll knows to play the top games. It is that line of hidden gems - Adventures of Lolo, Archon, Boy and His Blob, and perhaps Back to the Future 2 and 3 - where it helps to know somebody.

    Tuesday, March 9, 2010

    They Are Gardeners and Carpenters (Attack of the Killer Tomatoes)

    There has been a recurring theme lately that can roughly be summarized as "my childhood was fucking weird." We will continue that theme. Somewhere in the vicinity of three, I watched Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.

    I asked my mother why I saw this movie at that age. Here is a transcript of our conversation.

    Me: Why did I see Attack of the Killer Tomatoes?
    Mom: Dad and I were watching it.
    Me: But why did you let me watch it?
    Mom: Why not?

    That would have been 1985. Five years later, someone had the deeply inept idea of making a Saturday morning cartoon out of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, which is really the opposite of what you should do. A year later the TV series was adapted to a video game. I ignored all of these developments, because I was nine and my consumption habits were much more due to chance than design.

    Despite Attack of the Killer Tomatoes being a formative experience in various bizarre ways that I am not wholly suited to describe, it is not a well I've gone back to in my adult life, due mostly to having never gotten around to buying the movies. So there's a certain unfamiliar familiarity to the concept. This sense is in no way helped by the fact that, frankly, Nintendo games are a poor medium for narrative evocation. What I can glean from this game is basically "there are tomatoes, and touching them kills youth" which actually basically amounts to "it does what it says on the tin."

    And yet still in all of this there is a strange appeal. There is a certain madcap brilliance to a substantial world where you jump on tomatoes, breaking them into little cherry tomatoes that scatter off. It is not a game that I would necessarily play at length today, with decades of backlog to catch up on. But I wish I'd stumbled upon it when I was nine and formed the associations needed to love it today.

    I'm sure the movie itself is not great either. But on the other hand, I've little doubt I would love it were I to slip it into my DVD player. Childhood will do that to you.

    Thursday, March 4, 2010

    Deeper Than Did Ever Plummet Sound (Astyanax and Athena)

    If the Nintendo Project is a chronicle of my childhood in the abstract (and it is, among other purposes) then it is the chronicle of only one of my childhoods. It is by its nature a separate choice from the Super Nintendo after it, or the Commodore 64 before it, or the Internet on which many things, good and bad about me, were forged.

    There is another childhood, wandering somewhere in 1997 and 1998. In it, I discover Sandman. One of my first two issues is actually the last. The main character makes a potent claim - "I am prince of stories, Will, but I have no story of my own. Nor shall I ever." I used the line as a sig for many years on the Internet.

    Astyanax and Athena were not games I had played before. Athena came out in 1987. Behind the scenes, in a world I was not yet familiar with. Watchmen finished its run. Alan Moore was writing Swamp Thing. Neil Gaiman's first comic, Violent Cases, an attempt to grapple with the metaphors of his own childhood, came out.

    Three years later, Astyanax came out. Sandman was well underway. Grant Morrison's final issue of Animal Man came out. I knew none of these things. My own future childhood was happening without me. My secret history.

    Athena, a goddess of Wisdom, seemingly had nothing to do with her own game. Perhaps the game made some marginal amount of sense in Japan, where its petulant girl goddess main character existed in some cultural norm. Here, the line between the generic Swords and Sorcery cover and the anime girl on the title screen is basically unbridgeable, especially in 1987. It doesn't help that the game is unplayably bad. A clumsy arcade port. Arcades are not a secret history for me but a partial history - one marked by two major doubling backs, one in the early 1990s when I played pinball, and a second at the turn of the millenium as I played Dance Dance Revolution. At the turn of the millennium, Grant Morrison's Invisibles was concluding. I am reading it only now.

    Astyanax gives every impression during its lengthy intro of ambition before slumping over with awkward controls only slightly better than Athena's. It too is an arcade port. But its story is a richly detailed chunk of fluff and nonsense. The story does not propel the gameplay. The fact that my avatar has an axe and things are attacking it propels the gameplay. The story sits more or less abandoned, an uncompelling footnote to an uncompelling game. A secret history.

    There was a time when I was going to tell stories. What stories are perhaps unclear - my fanfiction days coincided neatly with Middle School. By high school I was a serious writer, and these were serious stories, or perhaps they would have been if I'd written a damn one of them. Into college. Poetry happened for a few years, not entirely without aesthetic success, but what the hell does that mean in practice. Today, some part of me would write comics. But there is no story waiting to be told. No story trying to burst out of me. I want to create art because it surrounds me. Not because it is inside of me.

    In some secret history, it is 1987. I am in an arcade. I am not sure why I am in an arcade at age five, but I am. These things happen. Behind a dusty Athena cabinet, someone has dropped a copy of Watchmen #1. Curious, I open it. No wisdom is more potent than that which one cannot yet understand. There is a story to be told of this secret history. Perhaps in this secret history, I could have told it.