Monday, August 16, 2010

The Death of Bo Jackson (The Blue Marlin, Blues Brothers, Bo Jackson's Baseball)

I am writing this from a hotel room in Gainesville, Florida, although blog posting does not work great from the iPad (the only computer I have with me), and so it's going to post several days later. I have little use for being here. I am here for my graduation, an event that, although it matters, is fundamentally a strange anticlimax in the face of the real work of a PhD. I am also here to finalize my divorce, which is simply put not an experience it is possible to look forward to. (Perhaps my ex-wife does, but the less said about her the better, at least in this entry.)

I have little use for any of the three games to be discussed today either - The Blue Marlin, Blues Brothers, and Bo Jackson's Baseball. The Blue Marlin poses perhaps the biggest challenge, as I am reasonably confident that I have in fact said absolutely everything about fishing games that I have in me. I suppose this should worry me, as it suggests some hard limit to the act of video game criticism that I could theoretically meet in general in the future. In practice, however, it just kind of irritates me, which, come to think of it, makes it resemble my divorce, my ex-wife, the logistics of my graduation, and The Blue Marlin. Which at least completes the bare minimum requirement of tying it into some sort of overall narrative theme, which is all I really require of a given entry.

Bo Jackson has a strong level of iconicness among my generation - I can ask virtually anyone of my peer group about Jackson, and they know Bo. And they know that Bo knows things. Among the things that Bo knows is baseball. Bo also knows football - a matter that will be discussed in full, at current rate of writing, about nine years when I get to Tecmo Bowl. But for now, it is sufficient to note that the stresses of playing a double season with minimal break led to Jackson suffering a career ending football injury that, while it did not end his baseball career, ended the period of his substantial fame. Bo knew, in essence, for only a few years. But in that period, Bo Jackson's Baseball was produced.

Bo Jackson's Baseball is no better or worse than other baseball games. I found fielding more pleasant than usual. It does have a cheat code that allows you to field an entire team of Bo Jacksons, a move that both seems to dramatically ignore the notion of positions in baseball and seems to represent a sort of supreme narcissism of celebrity. In one sense, this is the entire point of the game - in a celebrity endorsed game, what is the point of playing as anyone other than the celebrity.

But of course, this cheat code is of a sort of ephemeral use at best. After Bo Jackson's career has come to a crashing halt, and he has recessed to nostalgic memory, what use is playing as an entire team of Bo Jacksons?

Speaking of celebrity, we have Blues Brothers, a mediocre sidescroller. Inasmuch as every video game is marked by death (as virtually nobody completes a game without dying at least once in the process of owning it), Blues Brothers is interesting for being the most stunningly macabre game I have yet encountered, in that it defaults to having the player play as Jake, and thus encourages the player to endlessly and ritualistically re-enact the death of John Belushi. Which is, let's face it, kind of fucked up. The game itself is a fairly standard side-scroller, in which, so far as I can tell, the player is functionally defenseless against a mall full of sharks, gunmen, and spiked balls. The jump controls are twitchy and awkward, and the game design encourages players to miss jumps in ways that force the player to basically start the level over again. If it sounds like I think the game sucks, I do, though to be fair, it does not suck with any particular egregiousness worthy of comment. It is the sort of dull average-quality pablum that is normal for the NES. Were it not a licensed property that fetishized one of the iconic deaths of the 1980s there would be virtually nothing to say about it.

But perhaps we can extend this. After all, the flip side of death in a video game is resurrection. Video games offer endless death, yes. But they just as much offer endless revival. The fundamental fantasy of Blues Brothers is the prospect of John Belushi not being dead - of being able to have a Blues Brothers story in 1990 despite the loss of Belushi. But this fantasy is cut short in two ways. First, it is very difficult to capture the essence of comedy in a video game. Video games, as I have said before, are poor vehicles for narrative because most stories do not involve frequent and extended stops for killing monsters and jumping among platforms. Not even Michael Bay films stop for action with sufficient frequency to adapt directly to a video game. Comedy, which is based on a certain velocity of jokes, is a particularly awkward mix with a medium defined by stops for action.

But perhaps more important, video games are non-infinite in duration. Eventually the game is turned off, never to be turned on again. Eventually, John Belushi dies forevermore, and Bo Jackson suffers his last career ending injury. Even in the Blue Marlin, characterized as it is by the naive dream that removing a fish from the ocean has no effect on the total number of fish in the ocean, eventually the fish supply, and indeed the ocean itself runs dry.

That video games are not useful is, on one level, supremely obvious. But the nature of their lack of utility runs deeper than we often give it credit for. The truth is this - video games are supremely mortal - moreso than other media because they can only take a meaningful form when their binary code is transmuted by the act of being played into a coherent experience. Eventually entropy takes hold, and the game collapses into a meaningless form.

Video games are, in the end, no different from the arbitrary pageantry turned into significant meaning of graduation. Certainly no different from the arbitrary confines of a hotel room - a place without definition that is nonetheless anything but a blank slate. Or of a divorce, where the defined relationship between two people gives way to the oversignification of negation. My wife and I will forever be ex. Just as John Belushi will forever be better known for death than for the life that gave that death significance. Just as any known video game is, in the end, known in memoriae, an experience never to be had again.

Bo Jackson, defined eternally by what he knows, stares out at a baseball diamond full of himself. Does Bo know Bo? Can Bo know what it is to know baseball, to know football? Does Bo know what it means to revert from signal to noise? It is one thing to ask if Bo Jackson, staring out at this field of celebrity likenesses, knows his own reality. Do the various Jacksons, playing out of position, infinitely copied, know that they are momentary social configurations of a subject lost to himself? Does John Belushi turn to drugs because he cannot live up to the myriad of copies of himself out in the culture? Or does he turn to them because he realizes that he himself is a useless copy, playing out a pageantry of social ritual, waiting for the off switch to assert its fearful teleology?

Death only occurs because we search for meaning in the first place. Given that, perhaps there is no comfort greater than that of a lousy, pointless video game.


  1. "The truth is this - video games are supremely mortal - moreso than other media because they can only take a meaningful form when their binary code is transmuted by the act of being played into a coherent experience. Eventually entropy takes hold, and the game collapses into a meaningless form."
    All other media are just as meaningless, as they only useful when they are being used (read for a novel, watched for a movie...), and as such video games are no less nor more meaningful than other media.

  2. Again I disagree - novels, photographs, even film to a meaningful (but non-exclusive) extent can give up their meaning without the aid of an intermediary to decode them. Even when closed, a novel has its meaning. Whereas without the NES or an emulator, the binary code of The Blue Marlin is simply binary code - completely arbitrary. It could be opened as text, played as audio, viewed as a picture, or run as an NES game. It has no human-readable form.

    There is, to my mind, a fundamental difference between merely completing the viewer/object dyad and creating an experience, and engaging in an active decoding of an object.

    Put another way, other media can exist absent a viewer. Eleanor Rigby is comprised of a certain vibrational frequencies, and remains Eleanor Rigby regardless of circumstance. The Blue Marlin, however, requires someone on the other end of the controller pushing buttons to exist and play out.

    The steady collapse of other media to digital forms adds a spin on this that I did not deal with, but I stand by the basic assertion.