Monday, September 6, 2010

The Audient Void (Casino Kid and Casino Kid 2)

The essential innovation of HP Lovecraft is to imagine the moment of religious ecstasy as a negative phenomenon. Paul, on the road to Damascus, is given a vision not of Christ's forgiveness, but of the opposite. Instead of knowing one's holy and sacred place in the universe, one is confronted by the supreme meaninglessness of one's own existence. Or worse, in the absolute darkest case, one is seen and recognized by God, but hated. Every narrow escape and lucky break you've ever had is a mere vagary of pure chance, while every harrowing experience and trial you've suffered is the active intervention of a universe that wants you to suffer. It is no accident that glossolalia is the province both of divine inspiration and demonic possession. Communion with the sacred core of creation is a risky business. It's not safe to assume you're going to like the innermost secrets of the universe. In fact, if you were going to like them, the universe probably wouldn't go to such lengths to keep them from you.

The fact that the universe has helpfully placed "Danger: Beware of Shub-Niggrauth" signs throughout itself to aid people in this has had a remarkably minimal effect on actual human behavior with regards to this issue. The counter-narrative of "beware of existential terror" is, in essence, the human tendency towards extremism characterized by the sublime. The single most radical Lovecraft story is The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, in which Zaphod Beeblebrox is forced to confront the Total Perspective Vortex, and unflinchingly concludes that, actually, he's every bit as totally awesome as he thought he was. If only we can aspire to being as completely fucking out of our goddamn minds as Zaphod Beeblebrox, we'd be fine in even the most malicious of universes. (Which, to be fair, as his career went on, is exactly the sort of universe Adams became more and more obsessed with describing)

This is not, I should stress, mere abstract philosophy. It is at the heart of our games for today, Casino Kid and its cleverly named sequel, Casino Kid 2. The first of these games slots into the extremely marginal genre of gambling RPG, with the second one somewhat downplaying the handful of RPG elements from the first. Regardless, there's an unnervingly thin line between Casino Kid and Pokemon, a fact I mostly bring up because its funny, as it's not even what I want to talk about here. What I want to talk about here is the existential and spiritual state of the gambler.

This question has already been addressed at length by the American philosopher Kenny Rogers, who describes the core of the ethos thusly: "You've got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, and know when to run." A close reading of Rogers, however, suggests some anxiety at the core of this ethos. First of all, the eponymous Gambler is the sort of person who could get lessons on reliable narration from Charles Kinbote. His advice is given only after he has managed to suck the unnamed singer of the song dry of everything he could possibly give him. His advice culminates in the spectacularly unhelpful "Every gambler knows that the secret to survival is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep. Cause every hand's a winner, and every hand's a loser, and the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep," advice the Gambler promptly follows himself.

What, then, is the ace that the narrator can keep in this stream of verbiage? Interesting question. Let's return to Lovecraft. The gambler's essential dilemma - do I bet more - comes down to an applied case of the secrets of the universe issue. Is luck on my side? That is to say, is the universe structured in a way such that I am going to win even though that is objectively improbable? Is the dealer Jesus or Cthulhu? Except that the question is, sadly, never really asked in the negative - does the universe have it in for me? This is doubly perverse, as I observed previously, in computer gambling games, where the universe is actually defined as the program you're engaging with, and the question of whether it has it in for you is definitively answerable as "yes."

I have never been much of a gambler - a mild enjoyment of poker was always trumped by my vague feeling that it is more aesthetically satisfying to go broke bluffing when you have fuck all than it is to actually win via the moderate play that leads to victory. Lottery tickets were a brief amusement, as was the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. Both of these were fed by my grandfather, who had a healthy love of both, although in hindsight, our mutual fascination with the news that we were already a winner of the PCH Sweepstakes coincided unnervingly with the onset of his Alzheimer's disease, so yeah. That's funny too.

The lottery, as math professors such as both my parents like to say, is a tax on people who can't do math. The fact that my mother, the statistician, is the one who indulges in instant tickets for the whole family every Christmas, while my father refuses to gamble is one of those basic structural ironies of my childhood. The fact that, with the lottery, the universe that can definitively be said to have it in for you is your state Government, and that they are lying to you and conning you because otherwise you won't give them enough money to send your kids to school is not so much a structural irony of my childhood as it is a structural irony of the whole of these the waning days of Babylon.

Childhood is where this existential dilemma looms largest, by and large, which is probably why, even though there actually exists a CD of Tool songs recorded for babies, there are no picture book adaptations of HP Lovecraft. (The closest equivalent are Jack Chick tracts, which, if you stop to think about it, come much closer to offering a Lovecraftian vision of religious conversion than an ecstatic one) It is impossible in a world built for creatures twice your size to fully eliminate the nagging doubt that the entire universe is actually designed for the sole purpose of murdering you. On the other hand, the gorgeous narcissism of childhood makes it impossible to fully extinguish the conviction that you are secretly god, or at the very least his chosen. The process of growing up by and large occurs when the last belief that you might secretly be the best in the world at something is finally drummed out of you.

I remember the period in my life where I was going to be a world class chef moonlighting as a crime-fighting superhero who also wrote comics, programmed video games, and might have actually been the second coming of Jesus (after all, Jesus had a somewhat drab childhood). Oh, and I lived in my parents' back yard. It coincides neatly with the period this project exists to unearth, and by extension with my gambling days.

If there is one thing that is uncannily bizarre about Casino Kid, then, it is that it occupies a truly bizarre place in relation to this dilemma. This is clearest in its second installment, where the retrograde influence of Pokemon has largely faded. Here the Casino Kid, inexplicably armed with $200 of the million dollars won in the previous installment, flies around the world confronting a shadowy league of top gamblers bent on one task and one task only - the defeat of the Casino Kid. On the one hand, this is straight out of the childhood narcissism playbook. On the other, that playbook never points towards a shadowy league of gamblers, nor towards resolving the fundamental existential dilemmas of existence over a roulette wheel. Seriously, everybody knows that these dilemmas are resolved only via the use of ninjas, robots, aliens, or, in a pinch, dragons.

(This is for boys - for girls, the dilemma is inexorably related to the problem of princesshood, where the existential states are roughly merged - on the one hand, secretly you hold dominion over an entire land, on the other, your status is largely unknown, and until you are reunited with this land, you are helpless and at the mercy of the world. This narrative effectively reenforces gender roles, leaving the woman in the passive position of finding her rightful place, i.e. a husband, although it can readily be subverted. It is an interesting issue, however - it is far easier for the female paradigm to subvert, give the princess a laser cannon, and have her kick some ass than it is for the male paradigm to adapt into the female one.)

Casino Kid, then, is strangely out of time. It is at once a childhood game and an adult game, and yet is neither as well. Who is this game speaking to? Who is speaking?

The heart of the Nintendo Project is the summer of 1990. We moved, but there was a gap between the houses that my mother and I spent living in Mahopac, NY with my grandparents, while my father went to a math meeting in Wyoming for, quite literally, a month or two. This included my grandfather who introduced me to gambling. With no friends, no autonomy, and basically no toys, I was sleeping in my grandparents' basement, previously an apartment for my great grandmother, who died three years before I was born. This ghost apartment was exceedingly strange - for my entire life it had been, essentially, the place that the kids were sent to entertain themselves. An attached kitchen served no earthly purpose, nor had it in a decade by that summer (though I'm fairly sure we stored tubes of Flavor-Ice there. Vile stuff, I recognized even then that it was not so much a treat as the illusion of a treat, with all the requirements of being pleased, thankful, and happy, and none of the actual happy-making). A ratty fold-out cot converted it to a bedroom, and an NES converted it into a playroom. A room with no purpose for a kid with no home.

The summer was nothing particularly remarkable, and yet forms the crystalized heart of my childhood. My uncle Phil, who introduced me to the NES, stayed with us for a chunk of it, making it so there were three Phil's in the house - a recipe for chaos whenever someone's name was called. My grandfather, a trademark mixture of crankily austere and thrilled to pieces to have his namesake grandson living with him, plied me with a near constant stream of ice cream, lottery tickets, and good-natured grumpiness about video games. We were nearing the end of what we might call the good years - six years later he'd be dead after a precipitous and rapid decline, and the fact that he had Alzheimer's became evident only two years later. (We denied it until about a year before his death)

Despite his role as progenitor of a family of geeks, I am fairly certain my grandfather at no point had the slightest clue what a video game was. The geeky nature of his family must have been quite bizarre to him, a working class man who did spells in every job imaginable in the course of a slow wander towards the middle class. I know, in hindsight, that he held me in a position of uncanny fear and awe not entirely dissimilar to how I held him. The existential dilemma of a loving or terrifying universe is, in one sense, perfectly embodied by him, by the challenge of navigating his evident love for me and my evident fear of him. That one of our few points of clear and untroubled contact was lottery tickets is inexplicable and inevitable. A simple test - if the ticket won, the universe loved us, and we were OK. If it didn't... we'd buy another ticket until we got the result we wanted, I imagine. Or maybe just go get Flavor-Ices.

The power of my approach to the Nintendo Project is that it lets me put my finger on the scales of evaluating the nature of the universe. When metaphor, pataphor, secret histories and archeologies are the currency of understanding, it's no great challenge to construct a universe to my liking. Some day we'll have to confront the ethics of this charge, but for now, nearing the 14th anniversary of my grandfather's death, let's set it aside and allow ourselves a sympathetic universe. This is, after all, the end point of the Gambler's advice - that one must play is inevitable. There's no avoiding the choice, Jesus or Cthulhu. Given this dialectic, The Gambler's synthesis is the blind charge forward. Faced with a universe that is potentially malevolent or potentially kind, he cons a train passenger out of his whiskey and cigarettes, then dies more or less purely as a means of evading further difficulties. So let's cheat our way out of the box.

This approach in mind, Casino Kid's odd fusion of narratives makes perfect sense. Some 20 years after it would have happened, a game I could play with my grandfather. Defeated with a frequency otherwise reserved for Publishers Clearing House and lottery tickets, holed up in a ghost basement of a liminal summer, we could have together played Casino Kid. A contact point between my techno-mysticism and his inaccessible and untellable past of whiskey-soaked 1940s mystique. 20 years after that summer, 14 after his death, I can sit and play Casino Kid with, if not him, a hazy memory of him. He'd have had no use for this blog or this entry, and yet in this memory, there's a sense of pride. For now, there is no existential dilemma. The gambler's decision is straightforward.

I shall go sit in my parents back yard, perfecting the menu for my restaurant, and waiting for the prize brigade to be by with my oversized check from Publisher's Clearing House. I am already a winner. Smiling, I resolve my dilemma, and put Flavor-Ice on the desert menu. An unorthodox decision, I know, but I have faith the gamble will pay off.


  1. Just like Vegas Stakes on the SNES, did Casino Kid reveal gambling to be a boring and pointless activity?