Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Great Pumpkin (Cyberball and Cybernoid)

Cyber, a prefix meaning "mind," is a prefix generally associated with both the exceedingly low culture end of the Internet and the most rarified and futuristic conceptions of it. That is, we are either, Tron-like, in cyberspace, or we are 1995-AOL-Chatroom-like, having cybersex. The term's origin in its current context of digital computing technology is in 1948, appreciably far before the current context of digital computing technology. Thus the prefix "cyber" is useful to us because its existence as a signifier transcends the actual domain it describes. It is a word that means at the very least everything ever to have to do with digital technology. Certainly it describes a period from 1948-present, and that range can only extend further back. But at least we can, with acceptable precision, say that everything that lies along that spectrum of 1948-present is related in a reasonably immediate sense to everything else along that spectrum of 1948-present.

Shift the lens just over a step. Take a specific point in that context. 1960. Grant Morrison is born. JFK is elected President (An event mythologized in Mad Men, which is thus in part about cyberspace). These events take place alongside the activation of the first CERN particle accelerator. The current CERN particle accelerator is the Large Hadron Collider. CERN existed as a continual organization, entirely within the domain described by "cyber." Alan Moore, our frequent guidepost, for his part, is around before CERN, but is also entirely cyber. Tron came out in 1982, exactly two months before I was born. Its genre is recognizable as cyberpunk, a genre usually viewed as starting with William Gibson's Neuromancer in 1984. Chronology runs the wrong way, just like it does when dating the origins of the cyber prefix in 1948, three years after Vannevar Bush wrote "As We May Think," widely viewed as the origin of digital media (although it proposed to use microfilm - essentially photographic technology, suggesting that the digital age and thus the concept demarcated by "cyber" existed all the way back in 1824).

Shift it again. I'm typing these words. It is 1:48 AM on Halloween. I am typing this as a magical ritual. I mean this literally - I am engaging in occultism. I am a practicing occultist and magician and what I am doing right now, on this desktop computer in TextEdit, is a magical spell. You are reading it later than this date. It is retro. It is so utterly dated, a product of its time, as 1:48 AM on Halloween as gogo dancers are 1960s. This paragraph is being written 2010 years after the birth of Christ, an event that happened either four years before or six years after the actual birth of Christ. The foundation of our calendar, in other words, is an event that is imprecise to the tune of about ten years. A year is defined precisely as the orbit of the Earth around the Sun, and also as 31,557,600 seconds. A second, defined in 1967, deep in the age of cyberspace, is the amount of time it takes for the transition between two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom to take place 9,192,631,770 (or, more accurately, twice that) times. This is the realm of electricity, first recognized as a phenomenon in the earliest days of civilization, so 6014 years ago. I'll leave it to you to convert that to cesium 133 periods from 1967 and dinosaur extinctions. Two ten-billionths of a second, which is to say, about two flips of a cesium 133 atom, is estimated as the amount of time from the Big Bang to a point where the Higgs Boson particle was still existent. The Higgs Boson, one of the things being searched for at the LHC, is an extremely complex mathematical theory for a particle that would either complete the Standard Model of particle physics, solving a problem dating to 1960, and thus adjudicating a debate within the fundamental theories of being. One such theory currently competing in the scientific consciousness is that the Higgs Boson is so abhorred by nature that it is the reason that bizarre failures of the LHC have been going on.

A coherent scale exists that measures from the timescale of the Higgs Boson to a Godlike particle that sabotages a 17 mile long piece of technology that visually resembles the science fiction machinery of Jack Kirby that inspired Grant Morrison to write Final Crisis, his apocalyptic superhero story that exists as part of his project to make the DC Universe a sentient being. A coherent line of thought runs from Jack Kirby, who was born in 1917, to the creation of the universe. Jack Kirby is understandable as a God.

This is understandable only if we accept the same claim for anyone who can be caught in this web. This web spans from the creation of the universe to a superhero storyline involving Batman that is resolving itself right now - a story that passed through Final Crisis. When I say that the Batman story is resolving itself right now, I mean it literally - the Batman story is being told right this very instant in DC Comics. New information about the story is released on the scale of a day, when new comic books come out (Wednesday, named for Odin). A day is an amount of time measured in cesium-133 periods with a margin of error so big that our language to describe measurements does not apply for it. A language that describes the Higgs Boson cannot describe the error involved in a measurement crucial to understanding the temporal serialization of a Batman story that is riffing in part off of Jack Kirby whose visual style is mirrored in the LHC that the Higgs Boson is magically sabotaging because it does not want to be discovered.

The conclusion is simple and inescapable. The language that describes the Higgs Boson cannot describe the Higgs Boson. I would contend that this paradox is a mystical experience. Let us zero in on that experience. Where did it begin? This Batman story that is going on right now, that this present instant is a part of, intersects with Jack Kirby's character of Anthro, a caveman character who interacts with Batman in Final Crisis. This caveman is an aspect of God, and is present, right now. This story that is happening spans all of human history. The entire history of the universe can be viewed as culminating in this moment, the most complete conception to date of a story involving Jack Kirby's New Gods who are visually reminiscent of the machinery that searches for the Higgs Boson. This present moment with all that it contains is a valid metaphor for anything in the history of creation, and since all that it contains is a set co-equivalent with a set containing everything that has ever happened, any given thing that has ever happened can serve as a metaphor for any other given thing.

And thank God, because that chain of significations was getting oppressively large. But we know that it all began with the prefix cyber. So here's what I want you to do - I want you to count the number of mental equivalencies, metaphors, synechdoches, etc that got us from Cyber to the beginning of this paragraph. How many signifiers are between there and here? Count them up, and write that number down. Let's call it X. Now, I'm going to do a magic trick.

We've already established that the number of signifiers you wrote down brings us to a point where information overload has rendered the point unfollowable. In other words, that number of signifiers is at least a critical mass that overloads language's signifying capacity. So if we can find a set that we know for certain contains X signifiers, we know that we can overload the signifying capacity of language and thus create an apocalyptic moment - an end of the world. Because the world is just a psychic phenomenon occurring momentarily in the synapses of a brain. That brain manipulates something. There is some base unit of measurement that captures a single discrete particle of braincontent - of idea. That particle is a fundamental particle of the universe because without a conscious observer there cannot be a world to observe. So if we overload that particle, we end the world. So if we ever find a set that contains X signifiers, we cause the end of the world.

So the problem for me is that I don't know what X is. So lets take a conservative estimate. I count 1086 words in X - although that number was reached before I started revising the earlier portions of the post, so it is approximate. Each word is a signifier determined in its contextual place within the sentence - so every iteration of every word is a signifier. So any set that has 1086 signifiers in it is an apocalypse.

Cyber, the prefix that is bringing us to this apocalyptic moment, includes among its body of signifiers two NES games - Cyberball and Cybernoid. Cyberball came out in 1988. Cybernoid in 1987. It takes one year to generate two signifiers. So it takes 543 years to generate an apocalypse, measured on this scale.

So let's take an apocalypse - a specific one - a 543 year period. Let's pick the apocalypse that began with Gutenberg's invention of the printing press, dated to 1439. The apocalypse, then, took place 543 years later, in 1982. It is thus plausible that I am the apocalypse, as my birth took place in 1982. Of course, so did some number on the scale of 100,000,000 other people who could also be it. That is 1/1000th of the people who have ever been born, give or take, or the world population in 500 BC. In 500 BC, the Roman Kingdom was existent - the earliest version of the Roman government, which began in 753 BC. Its foundation was mythologized by Virgil in the Aeneid in a story that features the gods in major roles. So in a world that is 253 years past the age where the gods walked the Earth, there are enough people on the planet for one of them to be the apocalypse. This means that it is appropriate to treat people 253 years old this year as gods. That includes William Blake, born November 28, 1757.

The cyber prefix we are talking about here is used throughout its cyberpunk usages futuristically. It is meant to describe a future state of technology. It is us imagining the future. Perhaps the most famous imagining of the cyberpunk future is Neal Stephenson's in Snow Crash, written in 1992. This 18 year old book is hopelessly dated, offering a view of virtual reality that is exceedingly bound up in the punk portion of its aesthetic, an aesthetic that owes more to the 1980s than to the future. Indeed, this is true of all past visions of the future - they owe more to the past than the future. It is necessarily and obviously true that Snow Crash owes more to works from 1974 like John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy than it does to works from 2010. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, an old-fashioned spy adventure story starring George Smiley, a World War II veteran, is a greater influence on Snow Crash's sense of aesthetics and cool, hip badassery than 2010 does, despite the fact that 2010 is more or less when Snow Crash is set. The past is more important to the present moment than the present moment itself.

So the antiquated, historical future of cyberspace embodied by these two games in the late 1980s extends back to the aesthetic of World War II. World War II, in a grim and literal sense, is the endpoint of the aesthetic of Aleister Crowley, born 1875, and thus alive for the Jack the Ripper killings. Crowley, in fact, appears in Alan Moore's From Hell, an explicitly magical work, a magic spell, just like this one. Alan Moore also has done magical works in the form of spoken word pieces, including one, Angel Passage, that is about William Blake. William Blake is a God. Angel Passage was performed nine years and 273 days ago, which is somewhere between 8.81 and 9.75 months. So the aesthetic of cyberspace is potentially filled with gods.

Oh dear. if Cyberball and Cybernoid are deities, I have been treating them most disrespectfully. Let's start over, and treat just one of them, Cyberball, with the respect it deserves. Cyberball is the first football game I've played since 10-Yard-Fight in my very first entry. The game boasts that it is the Football of the 21st Century. Which would be now. Of course, this is the 21st century of 1988, not the one of 2010, so it's mostly about giant robots. This is the diseased and crass state we find the future in in 1988. So why are we so surprised that, 22 years later, when we are living in that future, it's a diseased and crass future. We dreamed a future that was Cyberball. Just because giant robots don't play football doesn't mean we're not living in the future we designed for ourselves.

When the Michigan Wolverines college football team fill Michigan Stadium to its 109,000 capacity, .1% of the world of 500 BC is gathered in one place. A crowd of that size is unthinkable within the paradigm of 500 BC - a throng of the sort that rarely happens in a human lifetime. .1% of the world has never gathered in any one physical location within the United States. Again, it is easy to forget that every single moment of human existence in 2010 is so massive in scope that it would be a worshippable object to past cultures. So why is it not to us? Why is the default claim among my generation a claim that people are "spiritual but not religious," or atheist or agnostic? Why is this the line we go for instead of overt shamanistic mysticism? Why do we not just go ahead and treat the entirety of our mass culture as a religious experience? What if the arc of religious experience from shamanism to polytheism to monotheism to secular atheism is not an arc but a circle, with secular atheism and shamanism in fact being indistinguishable, so that the present moment is not an endpoint but a beginning?

If the present moment mirrors human history behind it, the present moment includes within its signifier a future as long as human history. As above, so below. We can thus understand every moment as apocalyptic. There are numerous equivalent theories to this one - the idea of the Singularity, Robert Anton Wilson's idea of information doubling, Terrence McKenna's Timewave Zero. These are all theories of an informational apocalypse - theories that were generated in the past, in the gestalt of cyber. Cyberball and Cybernoid are part of the culture that spawned these theories of information apocalypse. But I would argue not that it is not time to move on from these theories, but that we have moved on. The singularity happened. Timewave Zero arrived. Alan Moore, in 2003, predicted that "our culture is turning to steam," a little known quote that nevertheless clearly caused the rise of steampunk culture, itself a variation on the cyberpunk culture that his rival Grant Morrison was embracing with The Invisibles. But by 2003, as Moore was settling on utopianism, Morrison was abandoning his utopian reaction against Moore's dark 80s, writing miserable titles like New X-Men and The Filth and, yes, Final Crisis. Only now has Morrison made the move that Moore made back in the 90s, moving from dystopia to utopia. These are huge cultural shifts that now take place in a matter of years.

My generation endured its long dark night of the soul from 2001-2008, the Bush years, marked by 9/11 and cynical, corporatism. We liberated ourselves from 2006-2008 with a liberalization that culminated in the election of Barack Obama and his iconography of hope and changing the world. Now we're already on the counterswing, our 2 year utopic moment given way to poor economy, with me and many of my friends wasting expensive college and graduate degrees on jobs with no advancement potential, spinning our wheels in the ruts of the culture. We were the millennial generation, the class of 2000. We were the singularity. We came of age in what we had been told all our lives was the commencement of the future. As the cliche goes, we are living in the future. How fucking bleak. Now our swings go faster and faster. We go through arcs of history in seconds, in instants, in flips of cesium 133.

Where is our mythology? We grew up keeping it safely stored in the future, and now that we have arrived we seem to have forgotten it, stored it in high school lockers whose combinations we've forgotten. Or worse, it's been stolen - all our mythology emptied out in the night, absconded with. All we're left with is the wreckage of technology and the myths we brought with us, wrecked up stories of Cyberball, mundane banalities of sporting events.

This is what we have to build our mythology and gods out of. We have no other choice - we cannot construct the future because we have already learned that constructed futures are lies that never happen. We have to construct the present, which is itself the same as the future we used to mythologize. If we could be entranced by Cybernoid in 1987, a game where you fly a little robot guy around a space station and get blown up a lot, then this same mythology in a world where we can literally play video games 24/7 and fail to exhaust the medium, fail even to exhaust the good parts of the medium, ought be more than sufficient. I stress often that these are not great games, but that hardly matters. Even mediocre games signify divinely. I loaded Cybernoid up to take a screenshot and got a bugged version - the graphics replaced with random symbols. I took the screenshot anyway, a moment of encoded game, playable but not quite the game. This is the mythology of the Matrix, lived for real, right now, this afternoon. That future, a decade old, is here, today, tonight, this Halloween. The search for greatness, like the search for the transcendental moment where consciousness shifts, is a lie. It already happened. It will never happen.

This is a magic ritual for Halloween, a derivative form of Samhain, a harvest festival marking the beginning of the darker half of the year. We celebrate Halloween by celebrating goblins, spookiness, and revelry. It is a celebration of death. Halloween is a day to which the eschaton is sacred. It is a day we dedicate to gods of the apocalypse. And look out, and you see what? Cartoon ghosts and pumpkins dancing along synthetic wrappers to food that is more chemistry than cooking? Chocolate peanut butter horrors? Late autumn gold across the landscape, and the cinnamon burn of cider and pie? These are how we celebrate death, and so they must, tautologically, be death gods. Let us not mistake this as some cheapening or lightening of death. Here are other death gods - the horrible visages of the Tea Party we are going to elect into power in two days time. Rand Paul and Sharon Angle and Pat Toomey. Political monsters that make the Reagan-Thatcher axis of the 1980s - the politics so bad that they formed the dystopic vision of Cyberpunk in the minds of artists - look like cuddly kittens. Far-right wing Republicans of the 1980s are now ostracized from the party as excessively moderate, downright liberal. This is a death god too - the worst and most evil government we have ever elected is gong to come into power in two years, forming the horrifying and final collapse of our two year stretch of utopia.

The only possible salvation is this - that the eschaton moves so quickly now that by Wednesday they will already be out of power. That they already are by Tuesday - that even when they are elected they are old news, almost as old as this post, as Halloween. The ghosts, when they arrive, are already giving way to All Saints Day.

You have your number. X. The number that, if there are more signifiers than that, your brain will collapse into a mystical state of confusion, overwhelmed by information. The number that achieves the singularity. How quickly can X signifiers be generated? How many times over have I generated them within this entry? That's the world we live in. Not one of awaiting the singularity, but one where every single instant, every single flick of a cesium particle, is the singularity. Cybernoid is the singularity. My MacBook Pro, generated out of the mind of Steve Jobs, itself a product of psychedelic acid culture, a set of ideas so dangerous that we have criminalized the drugs that enable them, is Timewave Zero, a Halloween death god. My coffee cup contains the Great Pumpkin Spice Latte of Charlie Brown. I can find more symbolism and meaning in the crass and banal cultural objects sitting around me than is the signifying content of any past religion. There is more arcana and secret to be discovered in DVDs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer than there is in any holy tradition.

The Nintendo Project has a narrative arc that is determined by my thought. For several posts in a row I have discussed the idea, in the abstract, of creating a mythology of 8-bit video games. The idea that there is enough in the NES to constitute a functional pantheon for the present moment. This post, this Halloween ritual, is a transition - the death of that phase. Here is our new hypothesis:

In every post, I have developed an excess of concepts. It is a given that any video game can be mythology, that the web of connections coming from any point here is large enough to be a theology. One can worship Cyberball or Cybernoid as easily as any other god in history. We know that these things can be gods, because we have seen their vast scope.

Next question: How do we turn this fucking thing on? How do we activate our new gods?

Happy Halloween.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Love Is the Law, Love Under Floppies (Crash and the Boys: Street Challenge, Crystal Mines, Crystalis)

(Wondering what happened to Cowboy Kid? First off, you're a nerd if you know the games in order that well. Second, it's over here, done out of order so that an interview could be completed.)

I confess to mild surprise at learning, in the opening crawl for Crystalis, that on October 1, 1997, "Savage war engulfs the world... Civilization is destroyed." I didn't remember that one happening. A quick check at Wikipedia suggests that October 1, 1997 was actually a fairly boring day. For my part, I was in the early parts of my second year of high school. Records suggest I was likely taking a C++ programming class on the side at the local university, though I might be off by a year there. This would have been during my exposure to RPGs, playing Vampire: The Masquerade LARPs in the course of my introduction to my late high school social scene due to what was basically a chance meeting with the social leader of that scene in my Latin II class.

Widen the lens a smidge and we see me coming off my third year of CTY, in many ways the most influential of them. Having taken Playwriting, not to any particulr fanfare or future, I was beginning to face the looming reality that the problem with my writing was not so much lack of ability as complete and searing lack of any ideas, a problem I am only just starting to come to some solution for. It's difficult to even frame the essential lunacy of this year. At various times across it there would be first stabs at serious relationships, first sexual encounters, intense friendships that shifted with terrifying rapidity to equally intense emnity, and, by and large, the consolidated and mind-wrenching commencement of adolescence in earnest.

Actually, as apocalyptic years of my life go, my second year of high school (by and large my years run September-August as much as January-December, if not slightly more so) is one of the bigger ones, which makes my inability to remember what exactly was going on in October of that year a bit funny, really. We speak too often of the world ending in some combination, perhaps, of fire, ice, or nuclear fallout. This ignores the wealth of apocalypses that occur in life. I have, in my pocket, a telephone that has a processor substantially more powerful than the computer I had in 1997. It gives me access to Wikipedia, which has more information in it than, essentially, any library that has ever been built. It also has more storage space and memory than any computer I owned until 2003 or so. And this is not a particularly unique or special phone. Millions of ones just like it exist, and that's just the specific model I have. Ten years earlier - in 1987 - the power of this phone would have been unimaginable except as science fiction. Somewhere in the intervening 23 years, that world ended and a new one took hold.

More broadly, of course, there are dates like September 4, 476, December 21, 1991, or September 11, 2001 - dates that clearly, decisively, and irrevocably changed the world in ways that one can clearly refer to the before and after of. The world of September 10, 2001, or December 20, 1991 is gone. It cannot come back. It's over. Personal apocalypses are just as common - the two most notable for me of late are the 48 hour double whammy of my wife leaving me and my father having a massive stroke. Though these are extreme cases, the general phenomenon, in a broader sense, occurs continuously, with the present moment shattering to irretrievable memory.

These ends of the world fuel the multiple histories concept introduced last entry, distorting our present reality into a chance contingency of an inaccessible chain of events accessible only through a realm of memory that is frighteningly indistinguishable from dreams and memory in any metaphysical sense. I can recall details of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as easily, perhaps more easily, than details of my marriage. Indeed, given the shocking arbitrariness of the latter's end, the relatively tight Aristotelean construction of the former renders it perhaps easier to recall and sort through. Human memory, in fact, seems designed to generate this phenomenon - moments of extreme trauma are blocked out by the brain despite their manifest importance. We are not built to remember events but stories and narratives, and the harsh intrusions of material reality, whether in the form of a car crash or a shopping trip, fade from memory in favor of at least partially fictive personal mythologies.

So Crystalis, released on April 13, 1990, constructs a story of apocalypse. The world ends. Crystalis, a minor game in its time, has, according to Wikipedia, become a cult classic. Its genre is classic Nintendo - a Zelda clone. Rereleased in 2000 for the Game Boy Color, the game was heavily redesigned, including the addition of an all-new story (apparently in the belief, perhaps justified, that a three-year-old apocalypse was not going to provide adequate dramatic tension). The original game that I've played here, then, is a lost history, an artifact of a world dead countless times over.

What am I doing here, exactly? Secret histories abound here, a thicket of possibilities, all fictive, even the real ones. This is not a game from my history, nor any history I have access to. I say this often, but it is worth stressing its strangeness. The NES is an intersection of everyone I could have been with who I am.

Here is a person I was not - Crash and the Boys Street Challenge. The thicket of meanings here is vast. 1992, with a far better Japanese title (Astonishing Hot-Blood New Records! Distant Gold Metal), it is part of the Technōs Japan series called Kunio-kun. Only sporadic bits of the series have seen US release, the best regarded of which is no doubt River City Ransom. They share little in common in US form save a particular stylized representation of the human form.

The game is an urban sports game with Olympics-style events - a swimming challenge, a hammer throw/golf combo, a sprint, Judo, and a parkour-esque rooftop run. I'm familiar enough to see the iconography, but not familiar enough for it to mean anything for me. The game's a blank slate, a chunk of history that could be anything, but clearly isn't mine. Who played this game? Or, more accurately, who is the me who played this game? More accustomed to urban settings? More athletic? Streetwise? Capable of buying drugs? I don't know. I don't seem to be him.

There is a thought experiment, a variation on Schrodinger's Cat, called Quantum Suicide. Like Schrodinger's Cat, it depends on a quantum effect being used to determine whether a deadly device is released. Here, however, instead of a cat, you yourself are in the box. And instead of taking place once, the experiment is repeated. Over and over again. Each time, your odds of survival drop precipitously. But if we utilize the Many Worlds interpretation, more accurately, each time the number of universes in which you are alive dwindles. But, because this is a fraction of infinity, some you always survives. Eventually, carried out enough times, you attain a state that is difficult to distinguish from immortality in any practical sense.

Is the NES library sufficient for this task? Every game played now and understood renders explicit an infinity of Others that will never draw a breath. This blog is writing as mass murder, as mass suicide, Jim Jones Kool-Aid Melange of psycholudology. So be it, frankly. I'll take the hit here. That's the thing about quantum suicide - if you live to care, you're the immortal. As the writer here, a construct less of adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine than of grapheme, I'm fine. By definition, I'm not going anywhere. Hell, sit back, let's load up another bullet.

Crystal Mines - an unlicensed Color Dreams game that, like most Color Dreams games, got re-purposed by their Wisdom Tree subsidiary into a Bible Game called Exodus, is itself a Boulder Dash clone, creating the sort of turtles all the way down chain of ripoffs characteristic of the days when "Don't Copy That Floppy" was the whole of the copyright law, which really amounted to Do As Thou Wilt. Never played it. Playing it now, don't miss it. Any me that ever loved this game can, frankly, fuck off and die for having no taste.

This is the ugly truth of this project. There's vastly more crap than quality. There's a reason I write it the way I do, and only part of that is that I find it really funny to bash out a history of pre-human existence in the name of talking about a dinosaur coloring book. It's that short of vast mythology, there's nothing to do with the sheer banality that is most of the NES. Having turned the eye of memory, perhaps against my better judgment, back on the painfully mundane vicissitudes of the bulk of video games, one is left with few options beyond apotheosis, whether of myself or of these sprites.

After the end of the world, what's left is the rebuilding. Gather your weapons, defeat the enemies, hack through an RPG that rips off Zelda and Nausicaa in equal measures. There is much power to be found in a risen god. Amongst the piles of bodies left behind any end of the world (and every moment is the end of the world) there are many such beings to find.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Let Us Never Speak Of This Again (Cool World and Cosmic Wars)

Those who do not like Family Guy - and I confess that I include myself among their number - criticize it for replacing actual jokes and humor with contentless pop culture references. Although I find this critique stingingly accurate, I understand how a show could get to be like that. I'd like nothing more than to just shout "OMG COOL WORLD" and call it a blog entry. But then I'd risk disappointing you, my imagined interlocutor, and I should hate to do that. And anyway, dipping into the Cool World level of obscure cultural reference is a bit much. It basically gives us nothing to go on beyond "An on-the-rise Brad Pitt stars opposite an on-the-decline Kim Basinger in a movie that's about having sex with cartoons." Which, actually, when you put it that way, is a bit more to go on than I perhaps gave it credit for, yeah?

Somewhat alarmingly, I was aware of this movie when it came out in 1992. Which was, ummm... fifth grade. I'd only just had the vaguest outline of this "sex" thing explained to me in the context of my sister's imminent arrival. So a film about fucking cartoon characters was not set to be a part of my world view. Then, after a marketing campaign inexplicably carried out where I could see it, which probably meant full page ads in comic books, the movie flopped quietly into the void. I never saw it, was never going to any time soon, and, given that everybody hated it, am probably reasonably happy that way, although, to be fair, everybody hates The Fountain and Tideland as well, and those are two of my three favorite movies of 2006, a year that was actually alarmingly good for cinema. (The list is rounded out by The Prestige, a movie that would have been my favorite movie of the year in 2004, 2005, or 2007, which, actually, is true for other movies in 2006 as well)

As I consult the Psychochronography Standard Playbook, It suggests that the traditional move here is to the faithful and marvelous idea of secret histories. This is unhelpful for two reasons. First, there is no Psychochronography Standard Playbook - I'm making this up as I go along. Second, and perhaps more significantly, the resulting narrative, no doubt about an imagined sexual awakening I could have had, would require that the movie be good, which, as I said, it appears to have not been, given that Ralph Bakshi was, let's face it, never at his best when he was playing the sexual transgressiveness game (a tragic fact that forces us to admit that Wizards was him at his best).

No. This is not a secret history. This is something else. It is the phenomenon described by Slate when they recently looked at the 1990 Dick Tracy movie - the cultural event that never happened, or, more accurately, happened but was not an event. It is tempting to call it alternate history, but this too seems off. It is not that Cool World as a cultural event belongs to some alternate fork of the many worlds hypothesis. Cool World happened. It's just that its happening was not an event with visible repercussions. Those that showed up in the theater expecting a hurricane got a weak fluttering of butterfly wings.

I made reference above to the many worlds hypothesis. To better understand this, it's necessary, I am afraid, to provide a brief introduction to quantum mechanics - specifically the idea of wave function collapse. Wave function collapse occurs when a wave function, a description of all the possible states of a quantum object such as an electron - resolves itself into a single position via interaction with an observer. The big question is "how the bloody hell does this happen, and what does it mean that it happens?" One interpretation is the many worlds hypothesis - that in fact the wave function as a whole does not alter, but merely splits into multiple universes in which it resolved differently. Extrapolated from the quantum scale this leads to the science fiction conceit of the multiverse.

But there is a sister concept developed by Feynman - multiple histories. In this concept, it is not merely that a wave function collapse splits the timeline up into numerous alternate states. It is also true that any prior position that could have been true happened - that history is in fact the sum total of past events averaging together and canceling out in order to produce a single outcome. Doing similar violence to the carefully delineated scale of quantum mechanics, we can extrapolate another science fiction concept - this one frustratingly more ignored in contemporary art and media despite being every bit as cool, if not slightly cooler, than its better known brother.

Under the multiple histories interpretation, we can look at Cool World not as a failed cultural milestone but as a nexus of possibilities. Given that Cool World is both viewable as a landmark cultural event and as an entirely irrelevant movie, it can thus be assumed within this schema as being every possible movie and, as an event, every possible cultural landmark. In other words, perversely, because Cool World is an indeterminate oddity within the historical record, as opposed to something of significant weight that we might know about, we may imprint any significance we want upon it. It is in the exact middle ground where this is possible - enough of an event to plausibly situate itself in the historical record, but not enough of one to collapse history's wave function into some sort of discernible fact.

Oh, you wanted me to talk about the video game? Right, I forget sometimes that this blog is ostensibly about them. It might be easier if the game were playable. It's not. There's ammo scarcity, and then there's this game, which combines an almost Resident Evil-esque level of ammo scarcity with a beat-em-up's level of intensive enemy attacks. This is a good combination in exactly the same way that cheddar cheese and peppermint are, that is to say, a stellar example of taking two potentially good ideas and completely screwing them up.

But what relationship does this have to the event, if Cool World can, in our quantum understanding, still be called that? The video game tie-in is normally a pale echo of the event. But here Cool World does not have echoes - rather, Cool World is itself the echo, a causal echo instead of a consequential one. This is the problem with multiple histories - by their nature, they are inconsequential in understanding the present. They have no resonance as such because they are all, by necessity, antecedents to a definite present. If I embrace some other history, some great and wondrous Cool World, I do not change who I am - merely an apparently indifferent detail of how I got to this strange point.

Here, however, Cool World's utter crappiness as a game, as opposed to its mere disappointing underwhelmingness as a film, provides us some inadvertent benefit. While it is possible to extrapolate a wealth of possible cinematic/cultural events to account for the incommensurable gap left by the non-event of the film, the fizzling of the tie-in video game is not only no problem, but necessary. Tie-in video games are never good.

Should we observe the fleeting object of Cool World too closely, it will diminish on approach, resolving to some outcome that is necessarily less wondrous than the infinite tangle it is currently afforded. But the video game version allows us what amounts to another way through. By bathing in the paratext, we may encounter the multiplicity of the event without collapsing it. Cool World (the game), like ourselves, emerged from the myriad of histories that Cool World (the film) is. But unlike ourselves, its relationship to the film is necessary - the game has no option but to respond to the film even though it provides us with no information about the quality of the film.

The game, then, is a blank slate - a way to approach the film from the side, of sneaking up on it so we can stand in the aura of this tangle of multiplicity without collapsing it. Is this a useful or beneficial interpretation to take? I would argue that it is at least as useful, and probably rather moreso, than anything the game or likely the movie would give us in a more conventional approach. This approach, at least, offers some semblance of mystique, creates a point of irresolvable fascination and mystery. My approach, in other words, rescues the past from its own banality.

Cosmic Wars offers the opposite phenomenon. It is a Japanese game - one that should evade my supervision on the Nintendo Project, except that a translated version of it made it into my games folder, and it amuses me to talk about it so I will.

In these days of mod chips and Internet, the mystique of an import game is in many ways limited - mostly they're just advance releases of games that are irritatingly untranslated. This was not true in the NES days. While a mod/import scene existed, without the Internet to unite and guide it, it was a scattered, obscure scene based heavily on local connections. In those days, in other words, you needed a guy. (I am to understand that the situation was similar, by and large, to that faced by people trying to buy drugs, although I am spectacularly inept in this regard. But my sense remains that you can't really buy them on the Internet. Although I could be wrong, I suppose. Heck, for all I know, the way you find a dealer is to complain on your blog. I doubt it though.)

What was clear, however, was that the Japanese had games we didn't. For a long time the best known example of this was Super Mario Bros. 2, which finally saw a US release as The Lost Levels some time later. But others existed, of which Cosmic Wars was not one that I had heard of. A turn-based strategy game from Konami, Cosmic Wars is, apparently, a lost part of the Gradius series. No doubt of considerable interest to a niche of video game fandom, I, being neither a Gradius fan nor a particular turn-based strategy fan, had little problem putting it down after half an hour.

There are no multiple histories to be untangled about Cosmic Wars, largely because there is no history to be untangled in the first place. These sorts of games are defined by their absence in our history - by the fact that there is no data and no event where we want there to be one. They are inevitably imagined as brilliant games, in turns fascinatingly weird and captivatingly fun. They are usually hard - the legend of Super Mario Bros. 2 (which was not far from the truth) was that it was deemed too hard for Americans. But all of this is imagination.

I've played a few of these games over the years, and almost without exception, they're disappointing. The issue is not, I don't think, one of impossible expectations - as we'll discuss in a week or two when I hit Darkwing Duck, impossible expectations are not a huge problem. Rather, it is that these games are, from the moment they are first encountered, experienced as historical phenomena. It is not that an old game can never fascinate - I've been caught up in several games over the course of this project. But an old game, when it fascinates, does so because it comes from outside our experience - because it's a secret history. These long lost imports by and large cannot do this because they already fit into our histories by their absence. That is, they are in our experience as explicit blank spots, as opposed to inadvertent ones.

Just as Cool World's mystique collapses if its multiple histories are approached too closely, so does the mystique of these abysses collapse if we get to look inside. We were not meant to know secrets such as these. Our history is not for us, or at least not for our consumption as knowledge. It is something else. Something stranger. It is what brought us to this point, but is, from this point forward, strangely inessential given that we are at this point. From here, memory alone will suffice. History is a veil - alluring, entrancing, yes. But it is forbidden to look past it.

The question is whether that will stop us, and whether the results will always be as much of a letdown as they are here.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

I'd Actually Drink At a Giger Bar (Contra and Contra Force)

Contra is a distressed asset, a video game series in dire need of some sort of unifying vision. Nothing of note has happened within the series for 18 years - some sort of unfortunate record for an ostensibly major series. Even Mega Man, arguably the most abused of the 8-bit icons, has had a few successes since 1992. Contra, however, has been a downhill slide, marked not with a sort of noble and tragic path, but with a long and protracted whimper unbecoming of its masculine action roots. The archetypal Army of One, Contra's thicket of signification is so particularly centered in 1987 and 1988 that one despairs of a way out. Let's instead seek a way in.

First the name. Contra. From the Latin, it means simply against. Applied, as it is in this instance, to people in jungles with lots of guns, and particularly in 1987-88, it refers inexorably to the Nicaraguan Contras of Iran-Contra Affair fame. This is familiar territory from Cobra Command, but let's historicize it this time in the broader context of Reagan's America, itself a marginally glossier version of Thatcher's Britain. In 2010, living more in the wreckage of the conservative revolution than the light, it is easy to deconstruct Reagan's grand project and see the relative truth of Mario Cuomo's words at the 1984 DNC - "There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don't see, in the places that you don't visit in your shining city."

This was less true in the 1980s, when Reagan's morning in America seemed a plausible brightening after the darkness of what were, even if he did not serve through the majority of them, Nixon's 70s. This is what morning in America was. It was not until 1986, when Reaganism ran smack into the wall of the Iran-Contra affair, where it turned out we were kind of maybe a little selling weapons to Iran, ostensibly our enemy, in order to funnel the money to Nicaraguan rebels.

Nothing in the first two levels of Contra, nor in the vast bulk of the third level suggests that the game is about anything other than this situation - a bunch of jungle rebels attacking a military installation. Sure, the military installation has a measure of sci-fi weaponry, but the sci-fi touches - a laser gun here, a giant wall of gun turrets there - hardly seemed excessive.

Then, at the end of level three, the whole thing goes, to be blunt, tits up as the boss monster is a giant alien in the H.R. Giger tradition. Giger is described by Wikipedia as a Swiss surrealist, but this hardly does his vision justice. Giger shot to prominence by designing the eponymous Alien of Ridley Scott's 1979 film. His style is one of harsh mechanization, with human and organic elements fused unnervingly to machines in chilled monochrome canvases. The zenith of his vision, for my money, are the two Giger Bars in Switzerland, where you can enjoy a nice lager while being loomed over by horrific biomechanical monstrosities of bone and circuitry.

(My awareness of all of this? Fuck all. I didn't know Giger until I played Dark Seed, a 1992 PC adventure game he did art design for, and there I'm pretty sure I didn't play it until a good two years later. The Iran-Contra affair I probably first heard mention of in 1995 or 1996 when Oliver North got himself a nice cushy TV job, one of the first in a grand tradition of scandal-tainted conservatives going on to television careers. [Back in the good old days, scandal-tainted conservatives had to make more esoteric livings, the best of which was G. Gordon Liddy, who went on a speaking tour with Timothy Leary. These things, tragically, never happen anymore.] And for that matter, it was years until I played the original Contra, although I played both Super C and Contra III with some avidness around when they came out. For me, then, Contra is not only a secret history [I really should have a standard entry to link for that term like I do for Cobra Command and Army of One. I guess this one?] but a necessary act of archeology - a buried signifier that quietly anchored a chain of experiences down the line without ever being seen on its own.)

The easiest hypothesis, then, is that Contra represents a commentary on the Reagan era, noting that the light shining from the city on the hill is stark, and the city is less a sunshiny paradise than a harsh biomechanical dystopia, possibly with unnerving aliens lurking in the shadows. This ignores the fact that the game was designed in Japan, but then, we've been ignoring Japan most of the Nintendo Project, and though we need to stop doing that eventually, now is not the time. Anyway, it is not impossible, nor even improbable, that Japanese designers would target the larger American market - it is not as though American popular culture does not enjoy an outsized influence in Japan even as Japan, in the 1980s, was solidifying its role as the Other Culture Industry (a role now also shared with India).

I noted that Reagan's America was itself an echo of Thatcher's Britain, with Thatcher having swept into power in May of 1979. Thatcher's Britain was everything that Reagan's America pretended not to be - an almost limitlessly dark and sinister place. It was Thatcher's Britain that collapsed the anarchist sensibilities of punk into the positive nihilism of New Wave, and, more to the point, Goth/Industrial. Britain positively bled angst in these days, unleashing Bauhaus, Echo and the Bunnymen, Siouxie and the Banshees, Depeche Mode, The Cure, and The Sisters of Mercy in the general vicinity of Thatcher's rise to power. On top of that, Britain unleahsed the British Invasion generation of comics writers, led by Alan Moore, but bringing along Neil Gaiman, Jamie Delano, Peter Milligan, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Dave Gibbons, Brian Bolland, Eddie Campbell, Glenn Fabry, Bryan Talbot, and Grant Morrison, to name only the leading lights, onto the comics scene. This generation pulsed with fury at Thatcher's Britain. The US in the 1980s loved its military industrial complex. Europe, on the other hand, took a far more unnerving approach - it hated its military industrial complex, but worshipped at its feet anyway.

What is perhaps most perverse about Contra is its essentially European approach to its content. Yes, Contra mashes up images of the dark side of Reagan's America with Gigeresque treatments of the teleology of that vision. But it hardly does so as part of a subversive commentary on the above. Playing Contra, you're supposed to be enjoying it. The game could be subtitled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Biomechanical Horrors." Indeed, in Europe the biomechanical horrors were allowed to take full stage, as the game was renamed Probotector, and the main characters were changed to robots. All of this existed to dodge restrictive German laws on violent video games, but the end result, ironically, was a darker game in which the biomechanical horror is enjoyed directly.

But somehow all of this is the very definition of retrogaming - something fascinating that somehow does not speak to the present day at all. The biomechanical dystopia extending from the military-industrial complex just isn't the game at this moment in history. We've moved on to new threats. Implicit in this claim is that, just as Contra secretly historicized its era, some game sits in the current locus of classics that secretly historicizes the concerns of this present moment.

Looking at 1992's Contra Force compared to its namesake is a study in contrasts. Where Contra is both very good and very 1987, Contra Force is both terrible and misfiled - a piece of raw jingoism that was deemed too crappy for Japanese release and rapidly retuned to be a Contra game for US release. The game dispenses with the sci-fi elements entirely in favor of a sort of Dirty Dozen set of classic American soldiers - Burns, Iron, Smith, and Beans - shooting stuff. This jingoism set in 1992 is both oblivious (as nationalist myths are) and out of tune - 1992 was the year of the Bush/Clinton election, in which Bush's foreign policy experience and the victory of the Gulf War lost the election to Clinton's focus on domestic issues. The game was always backwards looking, as this sort of American Exceptionalism must be - inevitably we are great not because of anything our country does now, but because of some past mythic moment. American Exceptionalism is a nostalgic drive. In this regard it sits uncomfortably close to retrogaming - or at least, to a naive vision of retrogaming as the recapture of past fun. The emptiness of this is all too clear when one engages in the nostalgic play of something that is itself an act of nostalgia.

But what other vision of history can we have? Aside from the tourism of Contra and the hollow nostalgia of Contra Force, what can the past be except a distraction, a sideshow meant to anchor us in something other than the immediate problems of the present? The pat answer is that those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it, but what if this isn't true? What if knowing the roadmaps, knowing the standard errors, is what leads us to re-enact them? What if making new errors requires blinding ourself to the past?

But we can't. The past is what we are. A momentary construction of memories and experiences that flares for an instant before passing itself into memory. There is no action without the past. We are doomed to repeat its errors not because we do not know the past, but because they are part of the language we speak. The past is the mechanical component of our monstrosity, merged with our biology to provide a stark and hopeless circuit of history's lathe.

Unless, of course, it is possible to reassemble the past - to rebuild memory into secret histories, to rebuild the known errors into the unknown and mysterious. If the machine is not a prison, but a playground, a spaceship, a moment of enlightenment. What would such memories look like? You already know the answer to this, dear reader.

(A coda - Contra is also one of the best known Konami Code games. The Konami Code must be understood, by now, as one of the first digital spells to be unleashed upon the world. Contra's story of biomechanization is always already marked by the fact that the system can be hacked, that there is such a thing as a superuser. Take pleasure in the biomechanical, yes. But remember always - being a part of the system does not mean subservience to it. The Army of One is not a useless myth.)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Insert "Playing With Yourself" Joke Here (Conflict and Conquest of the Crystal Palace)

The smart strategy, when naming your video game, is to avoid promising too much. The classic games do this - Super Mario Bros promises nothing whatsoever beyond that it is in some way better than Mario Bros, a feat that, let's be honest here, is not a massive stretch. Likewise, Mega Man promises nothing other than a man that is somehow greater than normal. Other games take this to a drastic extent - Castlevania has no meaning outside its own diegesis, and thus promises nothing whatsoever.

On the other hand we have games with excessive ambitions. The first and foremost of these is licensed games - things like Barbie, Conan, or The Addams Family, all of which strongly suggest that they will offer pleasures in some way akin to their namesakes. The fact that they never, ever do is why nobody sane ever buys the video game tie-in for something. At another extreme is Color a Dinosaur, a game that makes a strangely ambitious promise, as we have discussed. And then there is the first of today's games, Conflict.

This is such a ridiculously broad title as to be comical. Conceptually speaking, the word indicates a struggle between two or more persons or forces. It is a term that can encompass the soaring and epic heights of bidding on eBay, or the slogging banality of war. It is a term that we use euphemistically more often than sincerely. "The Iraqi Conflict" and all. Despite the manifest flaws in the word, however, it is essential - it captures not only a vital part of human experience, but a vital part of linguistic expression. Conflict is what creates and polices the spaces in between signifiers. At the risk of offering a poor man's Derrida, it is the conflict between opposing concepts - good and evil, male and female, liberal and conservative, chaos and ceremonial - that lend each side any meaning. The task cannot be accomplished by mere negation - "not conservative" is not a synonym for liberal. It is only because words conflict with other words that their meanings can be spotted.

Conflict is a necessary consequence of multiplicity. No two words, even roughly synonymous ones, are fully coincidental. "Bad" and "evil" mean the same thing? Yes. But they also mean a wealth of different things. But we can extend this further. A word has no meaning standing on its own - it is in the context of language that a word produces meaning. Thus "word" in the preceding sentence does not carry a meaning identical to the same word in this sentence. To define conflict as opposition of two forces is excessive and redundant. It is sufficient to say that two forces exist.

For me, conflict conjures my cheerily abandoned Wikipedia days. Wikipedia accretes through conflict. Multiple editors cannot write out of agreement. Instead, the frictions and tensions surrounding an article slowly, inexorably create valuable content. The problem is that it creates content not by expending editors' time, but by expending the editors themselves - letting the inevitable conflicts chew them through. It's a process that is necessarily ugly. No policy can hope to guide a process like this, because policy would exist to make the process run smoothly. Wikipedia isn't about smooth process. That's the awful truth of it. Eventually, I couldn't do it. The encyclopedia would write itself without me. I was gloriously inessential. One step off the treadmill and I was free.

Of course, that's arguing on the Internet for you - something I've tried hard to give up. It's masturbatory conflict. Conflict that exists not to advance anything but itself. I used to believe in the power of the cutting witticism, the sly point that made it worth it. But you never persuade. I learned to play not for my interlocutor, but for the audience. But then, if I'm playing for the audience, why include the interlocutor I can't control? Sneakier options exist. Chief among them, art.

As a game, Conflict is a turn based strategy game - seemingly rich, but like most turn based strategy games, a hopeless case for casual play. This is not a flaw. These games do not seek a wealth of players. Instead they seek a dedicated core of players - a few people who will play them religiously. The best have well-achieved this - games like Civ 2 and Nethack that are still actively and passionately played by people. Done right, these games create a connection between game and player more intense than any other.

Game and player, of course, make a set of two. So some conflict must exist. Some tension. We've discussed this theory - the non-coincidence of game and player. But what do we make of a game that is literally defined by non-coincidence. A game that describes itself, right on the box, as being about the inability of two objects to be defined without hostility.

No. Hostility is not the word. I want some synonym. It is not hostility I want. Conflict is beneficial as often as it is harmful. Perhaps even moreso. To say that we exist in conflict with our games is not to suggest that we do not like them. Art conflicts with the viewer. This is perhaps why "conflict" is our euphemism of choice to describe far nastier things.

Here's a nasty thing we describe with that particular euphemism. "Conquest." Conflict is self-sustaining. Look at video games, or arguing on the Internet. Because conflict occurs as soon as you have two concepts, anything conflict generates in turn, by being a concept in relation to other concepts, further conflict. Conquest, on the other hand, is not. Where conflict multiplies, conquest collapses ever downward - where once there was you and me, now there is me and my new subject. Conflict is what happens when a man invades China and becomes Chinese. Conquest is what happens, apparently, when a man invades the Crystal Palace.

Conquest of Crystal Palace threatens to be another generic side-scroller on a system that is defined by a surfeit of generic side-scrollers. And then it carries through on its threat. A slight tinge of RPG elements does not outweigh a slight clumsiness in jumping mechanics, and the game never escapes the gravity of the generic. This is of course a terribly unfair criticism, made in hindsight. We didn't know how generic this was in 1990.

If the turn-based strategy game is a genre defined by its long-spanning colonization of the player's time and its role as a constant interlocutor, the side-scroller is defined by its end. The point is simply to get your avatar from the start screen to the end screen. It is a genre of conquest every bit as much as turn-based strategy is a genre of conflict.

If my life of conflict is the impotence of Internet arguing, what is my life of conquest? My life of making other into self, as opposed to losing self into other? The question's tough. Conquest has glamor, but it's an ugly sort. This dichotomy, in some ways, captures politics. Conquest is an essentially conservative goal, at least in the American sense of conservativism. The desire to render the world like us, because we are the best. I am very poor at American exceptionalism. My preference is for conflict - a massive spawning of difference and alternative.

But we just established a binary there, while we weren't looking. Conflict vs. Conquest. We've done this game before. We're getting good at it. The next step is to observe that conflict is thus defined by conquest, and visa versa. We can only have tension between two objects because of the possibility of the dialectical unification of conquest. We can only conquer because there is something else.

Without conquest, conflict devolves to stasis, every concept held still by the tension between it and its neighbors. This is the unhappy masturbation of Internet argument. If conquest, unchecked, is brutality, conflict, unchecked, is... nothing. The empty void of heat death. The game over screen, when all lives and struggle have been exhausted.

I gave up Internet argument for that reason. Now it's strictly blog posts for me. Imagined readers, who may all be spambots leaving comments about how I might like their blogs despite the fact that their blogs have nothing whatsoever to do with anything I write about. I've no idea if you exist. If I am in conflict with you, it is only in our heads. All that I experience here, I have conquered. And if I feel conflicted about this hill of beans?

Well that's to be expected.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Junk Creatures Out of Rags and Bones (Commando and Conan)

When the day of judgment gets off its ass and comes around, having been postponing itself now for 1943 years longer than The Last Dangerous Visions, Arnold Schwarzenegger will find himself being judged not for his mismanagement of the California state budget, but rather for his role in neutering Conan the Barbarian from his classic original form into a generic 80s wisecracking action hero.

In truth, Conan is the masterwork of Robert E. Howard, a classic tragic genius who fails to have the outsized legacy of his close friend HP Lovecraft for what is essentially no reason whatsoever. Both were part of the classic generation of Weird Tales, a magazine whose place in the history of American letters is strangely marginal given that in its 29 year run the magazine published Lovecraft, Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Ted Sturgeon, and, perhaps most bizarrely, the first published work of Tennessee Williams. Of this block it is Lovecraft, Howard, and to a lesser extent Clark Ashton Smith who are most associated with the magazine, likely due to their opting to die instead of move on to other publication venues.

It is clear from the first page of "The Phoenix and the Sword," Howard's first Conan story, that Howard was, to be blunt, a wildly better writer than Lovecraft. Consider:

"Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars--Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet."
With the possible exception of Nyarlathotep, by miles Lovecraft's best piece of prose, the fact of the matter is that Lovecraft does not come close to the sort of sweeping and poetic epicness of this paragraph. "Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery" alone is worth the price of admission.

(For my part, my main Lovecraft and Conan periods came in late 2004, early 2005, towards the end of my time in Chicago. This period marked a small explosion of passion for the vintage pulp genres, fed in no small part by my writing Pulp Decameron at the time. In hindsight, the period is more remembered as the lingering tail end of my relationship of the time. Foreshadowing existed in the form of the sheer and bitter acrimony her parents felt towards me. While large parts of my memory, in hindsight, reveal flaws in my actions I was unaware of at the time, this period is unusual in that, in hindsight, her parents were actually crueler, more selfish, and more hateful than I gave them credit for. My capacity for grudges is often more limited than I let on, but they manage the remarkable feat of, even now, over five years since I last had anything to do with them, being among the most miserable and horrible people I have ever interacted with. I actually have more animosity towards them than I do towards my ex-wife. And this animosity stems entirely from the sheer hatred they directed towards me in this period. In hindsight, the staggering black hole of anger they positioned in my life forms a better explanation for my fondness for stories about unspeakable cosmic evil than anything else.)

The Conan stories are not great literature. In this regard it is arguable that they differ from Lovecraft's best work. Their essential problem is that they aspire to nothing more than the delivery of thrills. Their appeal comes from the fact that they offered new thrills, ushering in the Swords and Sorcery subgenre of fantasy that later found its peak expression in nothing whatsoever, kicking about the outer ghettos of the scifi-fantasy-horror genre that has slowly metastasized from any sort of coherent form (which it did essentially have when Howard and Lovecraft were writing, the three of them being the major subgenres of pulp adventure stories. These pulps, of which Weird Tales is one of the most notable, formed a sort of genre Pangaea, which saw its end as both mystery and westerns split off to become their own continents. The remainder has organized itself into a set of continents, but like Europe, Asia, and Africa, the exact mechanics of splitting them up is, in places, a wee bit tricky). Swords and Sorcery is a sort of great white hope in this morass, the massive influential genre that never was, in no small part because Tolkien published The Hobbit the year after Robert E. Howard killed himself, establishing a different default fantasy literature.

Thus Howard's creation, better known for its potential than for its execution, enjoyed no opportunity to become the norm. A world famous wrong turn, a historic dead end, Conan the Barbarian is, in essence, a clear demonstration of how successful one can be while still managing utter failure.

As a video game, 1991's Conan: The Mysteries of Time, more often simply called Conan, is terrible. It's actually a reskinning of another game, Myth: History in the Making, an unremarkable game at best. The controls are awkward, the graphics are awful, and the game feels like it was slapped together in a short time even for its ignoble creators, System 3, and its equally ignoble distributors, Mindscape, both of which were (and are) known for their deep and enduring commitment to shovelware.

As a game, then, it has no purpose. It's skippable. It adds nothing to the Nintendo Project.

Here is a seemingly unrelated question. What is the minimum size for a pantheon? The Christian/Muslim answer that dominates Western culture, one, seems unsatisfying, dependent as it is on the exclusion of vast swaths of the world from any sort of specialized oversight. Monotheism deprives one of worship through the specific - no means of prayer or praise holds special resonance for omnipotence. The Jewish approach offers a somewhat more promising angle by condensing the monotheistic being's sphere of concern to one specific people. The result, however, is the abandonment of the universality of monotheism. What does Judaism prescribe for the non-Jew? The question is tricky - the answer is clearly not conversion, given Judaism's explicit cautioning against that approach. No - let's be more clear on our question. How many deities are necessary to create a pantheon with specific coverage of all things? The question is in essence one of language - how many characters are needed to create an alphabet that suitably forms a language that can express all things?

Put another way, how many Nintendo games are needed? Conan is not. (How many works of literature are needed? Conan is - the clear establishment of a genre takes place in it. But how much art is needed to span the breadth of expression?) Commando, on the other hand, poses a trickier issue. The game combines the linear progression through a 2-D space filled with masses of shootable enemies of a Gradius-style shooter with the sort of tactical advancing of Contra's overhead levels (about which more later) to come up with something that is not entirely unsatisfying. I am damning with faint praise here, but seriously, I haven't played a classic game since Chip and Dale - a game that, notably, posting this has scrolled off the frontpage.

In any case, this question of the bare minimum needed to capture the whole is crucial. Human experience is defined not by the ephemeral and fragile flesh that offers us transcendental unity of apperception, but rather by the flickering specter of a consciousness engaged in memory for a moment before it recedes to the role of memory for some later flicker. (c.f. "The Demon Regent Asmodeus") We are psychic pointillist art, a lo-fi signal, a cosmic zip file waiting to be opened. The crucial human task is not memory but forgetting - eliminating unnecessary data to the point where what remains can be mistaken for consciousness instead of a psychedelic sensorium. Language is our greatest success in this venture, a massive amnesia severing us eternally from experience.

(Consider the scope of this forgetting - it is such that something as small as playing all of the NES games - a mere 150 MB of data, less than a third of what a text file consisting of a human genome would be - constitutes such semiotic overload as to be mystical)

On June 11, 1936, after confirming that his mother had, at last, slipped into a coma from which she would not awaken, Robert E. Howard walked out to his car, removed a gun from the glove box, and killed himself at the age of 30. A month later, Weird Tales began serializing Red Nails, the last Conan story Howard wrote, having finished it less than a year before his death. Frustrated with Weird Tales's erratic payment schedule, Howard intended Red Nails to be his definitive, final allegory. Its plot concerns a lost city and a civilization whose foundational myths contained the seeds of its own destruction.

(Aleister Crowley, alluding to Max Müller's statement about mythology, identifies magic as a disease 0f language. But what disease? The answer is clearly a tumor - magic is language cancer, an unrestricted growth of signification serving no purpose save its own perpetuation. The image is telling - numerous reports exist of people with brain tumors describing the experience as profoundly mystical. Terence McKenna, who argued that psilocybin was an alien message to humanity specifically encoded to be read on the human nervous system, said that the night in which his terminal brain cancer gave him three seizures was the most profound psychedelic experience of his life)

The Lovecraftian monster (favored in turn by Howard) emerges from the gaps in human cognition. It is the answer to the paradoxical question "What have you forgotten recently?" Within the black box of non-memory, necessarily anything could lurk. That which slams its graphemic body against the walls of this mental prison is our first monster. That thing we know we know but cannot find the words for, which, before we have learned the words, is every thing.

The focus of Howard's writing was always the ageless hero - a fundamental part of Sword and Sorcery fantasy writing that exists in contrast to the Tolkien "traveling band of commoners, misfits, and the tragically broken" model. Nothing in Howard's writing ever showed mortality as existing in a form other than a sudden turn of fortune. This, then, is his monster - one of our most common. The creak of bones, which have only one understanding of the afterlife - the liberation of flesh rotting off of them. This is their only heaven, and every creaking is but their yearning to abandon the suffering of a life of structural support for the blissful release of dirt.

Was Howard insane? Or was suicide the rational response to his predicament? Fenced in on one side by the unspeakable monster consuming his mother, and on the other by the fragility of material circumstance, did some option better than a decisive step out of the box exist? What place do the living have to criticize those who have done something we never have? It is like a slug criticizing the technique of a mountain climber.

So Howard was only capable of fantasizing the Army of One. This is perhaps his sin as a man and a writer. But pick up Commando, and once again, we see only universality in this mortal weakness. Video games, even more than Sword and Sorcery, depends on this illusion.

And I am of the Nintendo generation. A generation defined by the same creaking of bones that sent a bullet into Robert E. Howard's head. What does this mean? A monstrous generation. All generations are, in truth - whether lost in space, hiding from nuclear fallout under wooden desks, or dismembered across the fields of Europe, there is no such thing as a birth that is not monstrous. Let that be comfort against the creaking of bones.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Baryogenesis, and Other Love Poems (Color a Dinosaur)

Dinosaurs never existed on Earth. Let this scientific heresy stick in your mind. The cruel refutation of the deep anthropic principle, dinosaurs roamed in pangaeic Eden, before the serpentine drive to life had dreamt of its anthropic goal. Nothing recognizable as Earth has ever hosted a dinosaur. Ask where dinosaurs roamed, and the answer will not produce any thing - will not consent to show you a place on Earth, because the very map of Earth shifted under the dinosaurs' feet. The land in which we find their bones has walked the oceans since their bones were set down, carrying them.

These creatures presided over the severing of Pangaea into Gondwana and Laurasia, lost continents whose destruction post-dates the extinction event. The Mesozoic era of dinosaurs is itself a recent blip on the map that ended 65.5 million years ago. Since then the Tethys Ocean closed as Arabia collided with Eurasia. Since then yet again the Indian Ocean opened up, burying the lost ocean under yet another ocean.

8.4 dinosaur extinctions ago, life staggered into being on the planet, forming the major theater of the Cambrian era, a rapid diversification of phyla unspooling across the rapidly disintegrating Pannotia, a pre-Pangaeic supercontinent. Our math here is sketchy - give or take, let's say, 8 million years. Life as such did not make its debut here - rather, mineralized life, i.e. life that left fossils did. We'll call this phenomenon a fossilization.

4.6 fossilizations ago, or 38.7 dinosaur extinctions ago, over the course of about 1 and 1/3 dinosaur extinctions, anaerobic life (which had been around since about 54.43 dinosaur extinctions) caused the oxygenation catastrophe, flooding the Earth with the oxygenated atmosphere we currently breathe, and setting up the conditions for the Cambrian explosion. (This is the event in history best matched with the fall of man in the Garden of Eden) Several supercontinents lurched in and out of being in this time, a continent, after all, being exceedingly ephemeral, barely lasting a dinosaur extinction.

1.2 oxygenations ago the first continent formed. 1.76 oxygenations, or 8.1 fossilizations (68.1 dinosaur extinctions) ago we formed the earliest moments of land and rocks. The Earth is simmering magma here, collides with lost planets named after nearly lost myths, Theia, Greek Titan, forming the moon. Things were moving fast here - the line between the earliest crusts of rock and the Theia collision are less than three dinosaur extinctions apart. The sun itself took less than a dinosaur extinction from the beginning of its collapse from molecular cloud to form. Let us call this period a solar system. Just over three solar systems ago (208 dinosaur extinctions, give or take, or about four Gardens of Eden), the Big Bang occurred.

Homo Sapiens Sapiens, our current species, staggered out of the evolutionary blender 200,000 years ago, or .003 dinosaur extinctions ago, meaning that human existence comprises approximately .001% of the universe. This event is bracketed on two sides - the development of stone tools .04 dinosaur extinctions ago, and the development of agriculture .0002 dinosaur extinctions ago. A mere .00006 dinosaur extinctions later agricultural communities formed recognizable civilizations. 5000 years or so later (.00008 dinosaur extinctions) I began writing this blog post. On the scale of error we have introduced, more or less simultaneously, in 1993, Virgin Games published FarSight Studio's Color a Dinosaur, an electronic coloring book in which you basically do what it says on the tin. The game is unplayably boring, aimed at a three year old, and misfiring significantly even at that task. There is nothing to say about the experience of playing it. You color a dinosaur. It's a simple, obvious concept lacking in all surprise.

It is only in light of the sheer and painful triviality of human existence in terms of the universe that creationism can be understood - the last spasmodic thrashing of the anthropic principle in light of its self-evident refutation at the hands of the utter triviality of anthropy. Two such positions exist. One is untenable, based on unintelligible claims of gaps in the fossil record, the so-called problem of "missing links." This theory falls short for one simple reason - short of constructing an unbroken chain of sexual parentage from a living human to prokaryote, missing links will necessarily exist. The issue is one of trying to apply the anthropic experience of transcendental unity of apperception to a non-anthropic concept. Or, put more simply, it's nuts to try to create an unbroken chain of experience on the scale we're talking about here. Even if we constrain our observations to the fossilized age, we are dealing with a half billion years of existence, of which the century-long lifespan of a single fossilized organism forms a .00002% window. Using such a hilariously narrow window cannot possibly create a chain without missing links. Recorded history, the necessary precondition of the anthropic principle, forms only a .0012% window on evolution. No. The claim of a lack of missing links is not a scientific objection so much as a complete failure to understand the philosophical implications that terrify you.

The more rational approach, perhaps counter-intuitively, is Young Earth Creationism. This view treats recorded history as, effectively, the only form of history. Various dates exist, the most famous of which is probably Archbishop James Ussher's due to its alarming specificity, claiming that the universe was created the evening before October 26, 4004 BC. Physical evidence shows that this is only off by a factor of 2.25 million or so. This scale of error necessitates the assumption of a Cartesian Demon of a God who laid an elaborate fossil record for, presumably, the sole purpose of fucking with arrogant humans. The fact that this view is preferred by some to science and empiricism speaks of the sheer damage done to the anthropic principle by science - it is so unseated that a malevolent god is actually a comfort in the face of the sheer arbitrariness of humanity on the geologic scale.

Let us meditate on the consequences of this anti-anthropic approach as applied to Color a Dinosaur. Coloring, as a concept, requires art, a concept invented about .001 dinosaur extinctions ago. Although the wavelengths along the electromagnetic spectrum corresponding to color predate both the invention of art and the extinction of dinosaurs by approximately three solar systems. In other words, a full 1000 histories of art and color have taken place between the existence of the last dinosaur and the invention of the human idea of coloring such a creature. More staggeringly, a full 208,000 histories of art have taken place since the wavelengths necessary for this process came into being.

We understand, then, the hubris of coloring a dinosaur - vast, cavernous hubris that requires huge expanses of autoimmunity and serpentine intervention to even conceive of bridging. And yet.

Approximately 1 picosecond after the Big Bang, the electromagnetic force (and with it visible light) finally separated off from the weak nuclear force, although it was not until 99999999999 picoseconds thereafter that the photons necessary to actually produce color phenomenologically came in. 13.5 billion years later, give or take, we invented art and color.

In between these two events, a second or so after the formation of the electromagnetic force, and about 9 seconds before photons debut, the anthropic principle, long since obliterated, unexpectedly fogs the glass and sits up. The quark-gluon plasma that the universe had been for the bulk of the preceding second, begins to form hadrons. Hadrons are formed of collections of quarks held together by the strong nuclear force, which is described in terms of color charge. A hadron must combine quarks to reach a color-neutral state - either by having three quarks of different colors (red, blue, and green) or having two quarks, one of which is a color and the other of which is the anticolor (say, red and anti-red). Suddenly, then, color has found itself understood 208,000 histories of art early.

(The science-minded among you are now registering an objection that color charge in the particle physics sense actually has no meaningful relationship to optical color. To this I respond thusly: Two men were traveling on a train. One carried a cardboard box with holes in it. The other, curious, asked about the box. The man holding the box explained that he was carrying a mongoose. When asked why, he further explained that his brother is an alcoholic in the late stages of delerium tremens, and constantly hallucinates serpents that plague him. The mongoose is thus to chase said serpents away. The other man is baffled - are the snakes not imaginary snakes? And if they are, what good will a mongoose do? The man with the box explains - yes, his brother is plagued by imaginary snakes. But the box, you see, contains an imaginary mongoose.)

If the formation of the universe is understandable only through aesthetic theory, the anthropic principle takes hold again, but with a strange new twist. Now we must find ways to aestheticize and narrativize 13.5 billion years of history. With recorded history doing much (though not all) of the heavy lifting for 6000 years of that period, and prehistory filling up another 194,000 years, we are left with only about 13.5 billion years to come up with some aesthetic for. How do we color a dinosaur? For that matter, how do we color a rock formation, a supercontinent, or a prokaryote? What color was Theia? What did the first photon want? Tell me a leptonic love story. Sing to me songs of Population III stars. I wish to see nucleosynthesis eroticized. Give me boson porn. Let us fuck in the Panthalassic Ocean after moonlit walks on the shore of Rodinia.

All of this is possible.

(The Nintendo Project is an attempt to understand my history and my creation in terms of the single object of the Nintendo Entertainment System. With this entry, it's 13.5 billion years down, 200,000 to go. And let's face it, 194,000 of those we got done last entry. So it's 6000 years to go. Well, and that one second before hadrons. So 6000 years and one second to go.)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Hail Set. I Mean Glycon. Shit. What'd I Say. (Cobra Command, Cobra Triangle, Code Name Viper)

Like most people, I was raised in part with the slogan "If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge?" The answer, I dutifully learned, was no, which always struck me as weird, because, let's face it, if the entire world jumped off a bridge, there'd probably be a good reason, and anyway, in a post-apocalyptic wasteland I wouldn't stand a chance, so bridge-jumping seems a more pleasant way out. All of which is a roundabout way of noting that if Alan Moore, my role model, said to jump off a bridge, I'd give the matter serious consideration.

Thankfully, Alan Moore does not do such things - which is a bit tautological, really, as I wouldn't be so overwhelmingly awed by him if he pulled crap like that. Instead he just worships fraudulent Roman snake gods. And takes a really frightening amount of drugs. He doesn't even particularly push these views - I mean, he writes about Glycon, but it's not as though Alan Moore is wandering the streets of Northampton wearing a sandwich board that proclaims "The End is Nigh. Embrace the Snake." Honestly, if you started worshipping Glycon, he'd probably think you a bit of an uncreative dullard.

Today's games, as the titles indicate, all have to do with snakes. Which is odd, as none of them actually have snakes in them. It's like the rabbit entry, only more inscrutable. (God help us all) So let's get this out of our system. Our most explicit Alan Moore homage. A celebration of serpents, symbolism, and madness. I warn you, this one is epic, and will involve, in addition to three video games, a survey of mythology, the Garden of Eden, Coleridge, Aristotle, Blake, US/Latin American relations (with a side of cocaine and the CIA), theories of nationhood, the fall of Rome, evolution, and linguistics. So, you know. Strap in.

As Moore notes, snakes are ridiculously common in creation myths. In America, no doubt, the most popular of these snakes is the serpent in the Garden of Eden, read in Protestant Christianity as Satan himself. Other cultures take a more moderate approach - Jörmungandr is clearly not one of the good guys in Norse Mythology, but on the other hand, you'd rather keep him in place than not. (The same, admittedly, cannot be said for Níðhöggr, but we may yet redeem him) The Ouroboros of our previous entry flirts with actual benignity, and links in with the mysterious Kundalini, both feared and revered in its traditions. Set is often portrayed as a snake, though this is something of an anachronism, his more traditional form being canine.

The Greeks give top billing to Typhon, king of all monsters, and often serpentine, but down in the supporting cast we see the twin snakes of Hermes's caduceus, itself an image held over from the Sumerian Enki, the water and language god. Enki provides a role strangely analagous to the Edenic serpent - giver of forbidden knowledge - secretly warning humanity of Enlil's attempts to eliminate them. Sumerian mythology also ties the serpent to mortality - in the Gilgamesh epic, it is a snake who deals the final blow to Gilgamesh's attempts at immortality. These myths form the proto-Bible, with Yaweh, by all appearances, being a descendent of these myths. In the oldest form, Yaweh is one of seven children of El, is in the original myths the consort of Asherah, later Ishtar/Inanna, who is at times the daughter or chief rival of Enki.

Snakes, then, form a fundamental aspect of existence. OK. But what does the snake do in these stories? This question has no answer. This is because it is impossible to approach this question directly. It can only be answered in metaphor. We have to approach it grounded in things, or else all we will produce is madness.

(The reasons for this will be made clear once we work our way through the question)

We introduce a thing then. Cobra Command. A 1988 Data East helicopter shooter. Neither classic nor crap, the game relies on the militaristic Army of One fantasy that we have already established. You fly a helecopter to destroy enemy troops and rescue hostages. Level one takes place in Sumatra, a name more familiar to people as a coffee than an island of Indonesia. There is no reason for an invasion of Indonesia in 1988 - in fact, the US was allied with Indonesia. Granted, the game was originally Japanese, but Japanese military policy, for a variety of reasons, precludes the Army of One fantasy, meaning we must read Cobra Command as narrativizing an American invasion of Indonesia.

(Subsequent locations continue through Indonesia - Java, then to Borneo, adding Malaysia and Brunei to the list, and finally Siam, i.e. Thailand. No remotely sane military action would take you through these locations. See "cobra triangle" below.)

But why the snake? What is the snake in Cobra Command? Clearly it is a form of command - the title is instructively obvious on this point. So what assumptions go into this? We must, in this narrative, have a structure of power. War requires this - a concept of nations, for one. Or, more accurately, the phenomenon of nations, with or without actual conceptualization. After all, the nations of the past bear minimum resemblance to the concept we utilize today.

Consider Odoacer, the barbarian king who overthrew Romulus Augustus and brought about the final end of the Roman Empire. This is an iconic moment in history - the final fall of Rome. But let's go into more detail.

Odoacer's title, historically, is considered to be King of Italy, although Italy as such was an amorphous concept for a full millennium after he became king of it. Romulus Augustus, who he deposed, was a 12 year old figurehead for his father, Orestes, who himself helped depose Romulus Augustus's predecessor, Julius Nepos, who did not step down but rather fled to Dalmatia, now part of Croatia. Odoacer's authority over the Roman empire, which still existed in the East, was explicitly granted by Nepos and Zeno, the Eastern Roman emperor. Indeed, on paper Odoacer did not rule Italy, but worked as a client of Nepos, and, subsequently, the Eastern Roman emperor, although this was effectively fiction. Furthermore, Odoacer did not invade Rome to take it over. Rather, Odoacer was a general from a Germanic tribe who was allied to Rome by treaty - a concept called foederati.

So the fall of the Roman empire consisted, in fact, of a general in the employ of the Roman empire taking over the machinery of the Roman empire on behalf of the Roman empire he simultaneously rules and is employed by. Needless to say, the question of border and nation here is exceedingly amorphous - a city could potentially be part of the still-surviving institutional structure of the Roman empire, part of Odoacer's Italian kingdom, part of Nepos's Rome in Croatia, or under the rule of Constantinople, and, in practice, was likely to be all four, assuming it was not in fact under the control of the Visigoths or Ostrogoths, who were not so much nations as migrant tribes. And yet war took place in this incredibly undefined space.

What, then, do we make of the power structures underlying the fictional invasion of Sumatra that did not take place in 1988? These structures that are, apparently, a cobra command? What is a cobra command? The better question is what sort of command can possibly exist here. But crucially, despite the manifest complexity and inconceivability of that command structure, the structure functions - the game is playable. So we have defined cobra command - it is a structure of power that exists without requiring or allowing understanding (for instance, the simultaneous existence of four nations over one tract of land, or fictional invasions of Indonesia). It is the structure that works inexplicably. Cobra command is the sort of command that just works.

(It is worth noting that Glycon, Alan Moore's snake deity, emerged in the later days of Rome, when cobra command was essential to the function of day-to-day government)

Now that we understand the nature of snakes, at least partially (and we do) we can ask what Cobra Triangle represents. On one level, it represents a 1989 boat-racing game. But why the arbitrary title? It sounds cool, yes, but there's no cobras. No triangles. It's an arbitrary name of a fictional boat. The game could just as easily be Wombat Trapezoid. Again, we run into a problem of signifying. We have to ask, why a snake? Why a cobra?

Unlike Cobra Command, there is not a clear structure controlling Cobra Triangle. It is unclear what these boat races are, but they seem relatively hostile, in that the boats shoot at each other and lay mines, both of which are generally things that a marketing consultant would tell you to drop before trying to take your sport to a wider audience. It is also unclear whether the giant snake on the title screen actually exists in the game or not. Certainly not in the half hour I played. On one level, yes, the game is clearly held together by cobra command - inscrutable order that works without rational or expressible form.

On the other hand, there seems something more here. Cobra command covers merely the social phenomenon of power and structure. It is the ineffable glue that allows the raw exertion of power to take semi-material form. Cobra triangle requires something more - by the name, something spatial. Cobra Triangle is not merely an inscrutable configuration of systems of power, but rather an inscrutable collection of objects. If we understand Cobra Command as a representation of our world with inchoate political configurations, we must understand Cobra Triangle as a representation of something that is not a world. The basic dynamics of Cobra Triangle's boat races are impossible. They map a space that is not space, that functions in ways space cannot function, and yet is understandable as analogous to real space.

This is a common condition for narrative. Indeed, Western aesthetics is founded on this condition - Aristotle does not concern himself with the problem of eccentricity in fictional worlds. Indeed, Aristotle does not conceive of a play as taking place in a "world" as such - Aristotelean narrative aesthetics (which still, in an only minimally altered form, define our understanding of narrative) are instead based on the idea that narrative action is an imitation of actual life. That is, we do not mistake fictional events as being a series of things that happen to people who happen to lack a real existence. Rather, they are a play of ideas and resemblances that hold their power because they are analogous to real existence. When we weep at the death of Hamlet, we are not mourning a person who never existed in the first place, but rather mourning the fact that such events are a part of the human condition - a condition that is, I should note, only understood in the first place because of art. In the Aristotelean model, then, the eccentricities of narrative space are not problems to overcome, but the very building material of communication. Narrative space is a cobra triangle just as political discourse is cobra command - the ineffable functioning of the transparently non-functional.

On the surface this would seem the less radical of the two serpents. And perhaps it would be, were it not for Samuel Coleridge's creation in 1817 of suspension of disbelief. That Coleridge is, in this assertion, a flaming idiot about the nature of the supernatural in literature is clear - and as exhibit A I will trot out William Blake, who self-evidently had no disbelief to suspend in the first place. (In Blake, the serpent is played by Orc, the fallen form of Luvah, one of the Four Zoas created in the primordial division of Albion. Orc, like all serpent gods, plays a dual role as destructive tempter and giver of light and potential. In Blake this reaches its most beautifully heretical form, as Orc is both Satan and Christ figure, defined in part by its potential to transmute into loving and life-giving Luvah) More likely, to my mind, suspension of disbelief does not so much represent a functioning literary idea as it does a defense mechanism of an opium-addled mind too cowardly to fully embrace the collapsing distinction between dream and reality it was experiencing.

Meanwhile, embedded deep within consciousness, our serpent plots strategy. If a Cobra Triangle is understood as the Aristotelean narrative understanding in which we conceptualize narrative not as an eccentric system whose oddities we forgive, but rather as a system that is coherently communicating through gaps and oddities, then Coleridge's aesthetic cowardice, once turned intellectual pandemic, is disastrous. The serpent takes just over a century to construct and deliver its antibody. If Coleridge is going to insist that we treat eccentricities of narrative space as problems that must be willfully overlooked, the serpent will simply port these eccentricities to the material world. Enter quantum mechanics, which destabilizes the spatial autonomy of matter itself, reducing the fundamental substance of the universe from earth to air - replacing the certain structure of things with abstract mathematical relations. Suddenly we are made not of stuff but of symbols - the final derivation of a staggeringly complex sequence of equations. The cobra triangle suddenly tears through the page, mouth dripping venom, and burrows its way into the very heart of the universe. (The moral of this story is that you should not take too much laudanum, as it might result in the complete destabilization of all conceptions of reality for the entire planet.)

Now for the most staggering and impossible part of the narrative. We asked what the snake in creation stories does. Now that we have seen the snake's method, we may unleash him in his most fundamental form, one that will make Níðhöggr's assault on Ygdrassil seem like the frightfully unambitious masturbations of a demonic slacker. Now it is time to unleash the snake upon the very core of epistemology, of ontology, of being.

Code Name: Viper requires first that we disentangle some cobra command. The game has you as a lone US special forces agent, assigned to destroy seven bases of a drug cartel in South America. Though not stated explicitly, a bit of map reading suggests that this includes a base in Venezuela, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and three in Brazil. This is curious - the drug trade in Latin America has some existence in both Venezuela and, in 1990, especially in Peru, but the fact of the matter is that most of the game has you seeking drug cartels where none existed - at least, not cocaine cartels, which are what is most associated with Latin America.

Furthermore, the issue of US anti-drug wars in Latin America are troublesome. First of all, the US had peaceful relations with all of the relevant countries in 1990. Sending US Army personnel to conduct raids in these countries is what we'd technically call an "act of war." Which is not to say that such things didn't happen - but we should note that the acts depicted in Code Name: Viper most resemble those of the War on Drugs, which had as its one outbreak along these lines Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama in 1989 (perfect timing for Code Name: Viper), which included much of the US military, including the Special Forces division. At the culmination of this military action the US took the stunning step of having the US military capture Noriega, the head of state of Panama, and bring him to the US where he was tried under federal criminal law and incarcerated in Florida until 2007, at which point he was extradited to France and tried there.

Panama, however, is not a country invaded in Code Name: Viper. But let's be honest here - Operation Just Cause was a reversal of past US policy towards Noriega, who had been a valuable ally through the 80s against the Soviet Union, and who we knew full well was supporting himself heavily on bribes from drug traffickers. This was standard CIA practice in the Cold War - drug trafficking funded dictators that the CIA propped up because of their willingness to lend military force to anti-Communist efforts. This is relevant because the nature of the Army of One invasion in Code Name: Viper is much more CIA than Special Forces - your character is invading Jungle fortresses armed only with a handgun. Which, actually, even the CIA is probably too smart to do.

So OK. We've got cobra command here, certainly - a flagrantly impossible exertion of power. We've also got cobra triangle here - a drug operation run in countries with no drugs, and, more to the point, no value in shipping drugs. But there is, of course, a third serpentine term here - Code Name Viper. What role does the snake serve here? We already understand snakes - so what does it mean to unleash one on the level of names?

First we must theorize the code name. Code names serve two seemingly contradictory purposes. The first is to obscure. When, for instance, Operation Gothic Serpent was being planned, referring to it as Operation Gothic Serpent instead of That Plan We Have to Send Troops to Mogadishu and Capture Two Leaders of Adid's Command has the benefit, for instance, of not being obviously interpretable by these leaders. It adds, in other words, a level of mystery to proceedings that is valuable for covert action.

But the other role of code names, curiously, is almost exactly the opposite. Code names have the feature of surviving errors of transmission better than other options. By using the signifier "Operation Gothic Serpent," we condense and compact information, reducing the possibility of error. Some garbling in the sentence "Begin bombing Mogadishu" can lead to bombing any of Hargeisa, Merca, Kismayo, Burao, Garowe, or a number of other Somalian cities. Some garbling in the sentence "Commence Operation Gothic Serpent" is considerably less risky, because it is possible to design it so there are no phonetic resemblances among the relevant code names. An inaccurate attempt to resolve garbled language is unlikely to create a false positive with a code name.

So code names are, bizarrely, a way of increasing and decreasing comprehension simultaneously. What, then, is Code Name Viper meant to refer to, exactly? The game manual says that it refers to your character, the mysterious Mr. Smith. Very well. So presumably your identity in Code Name: Viper is risky. As you are a lone operative in these jungle regions, the value of this code name is dodgy. You're not going to confuse anybody with it. So what, exactly, is being concealed here? What does Viper stand in place of? What are its secrets?

Let's return to an earlier issue - the cobra triangle of the game, namely why the war on drugs is being fought here in the first place. Alan Moore, in the final issue of Promethea, asserts that serpent gods such as Glycon are contacted via use of the psychedelic drug ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is an herbal combination of DMT and a MAOI that allows the effects of DMT to be experienced via oral ingestion instead of smoking. (Think the film Altered States here) It is associated with traditional religions of the Amazonian and Andean regions of South America - in other words, its use extends across the entire relevant region. It is thus considerably more logical to assume that Code Name: Viper is targeting ayahuasca than it is to assume that it is targeting cocaine.

The only problem with this is that there is no particular issue of trafficking around ayahuasca - in fact, all of the component plants can be legally acquired in the US, and it is only the act of mixing them that is illegal. So an attack on an ayahuasca drug syndicate would not be an attack based on the protecting of any obvious US interests. Rather, it would have to be treated as an ideological attack - something more akin to Vietnam and Korea than Panama and Nicaragua. In which case the code name takes on a bizarre potency - if one is attacking a region defined primarily by its use of psychedelic drugs that allow one to contact snake gods, attacking it via a code name like "Viper" is exceedingly tricky, reframing it as an attack from within.

The problem is that code names already belong to the serpent. Their function of obscuring meaning while making it function is semiotically identical to cobra command and cobra triangles. This is the grand irony - a code name of Viper is already part of the system that Mr. Smith is ostensibly attacking. He is not only conducting an attack from within, he is conducting an attack that is plotted from within, that is part of the system. This is a case of autoimmunity -the body attacking itself.

This is the final form of the serpent god. Autoimmunity. Let's return to the Garden of Eden - our culture's essential serpent myth. The Eden story presupposes the anthropic principle - that is, the world exists primarily for the benefit of conscious man. As part of that world, then, God created the serpent, who can, in this primordial state, be defined essentially as the border point between mystery and knowledge. This border point is necessarily unstable. It has to attack the system it is a part of, because its role is as the revealer of secrets - of forbidden knowledge. This is a staggering realization: the serpent is the tree.

This is the ultimate form of what Godel, Turing, and Heisenberg only scratch the surface of. The unaskable question about what the snake does in the Garden of Eden. The fact that invites ultimate heresy. Let's break it down to its absolute raw form.

The serpent/tree is the part of the system that, if accessed, brings about the evolution of the system from one state to another. That is, it is the knowledge that forces man to move from the Garden of Eden to the Fallen World. Notably, this knowledge is part of the Garden of Eden - part of God's design. The Edenic system has to have a serpent - if it didn't, God would not have put one there. The serpent is thus a self-sustaining tautology, an irreducible other. Magic, mystery, secrets, sex, and death all rolled into one.

Alan Moore offers the following reading of the Eden story, beginning with the note that Eve springs from Adam's rib - a fact that is best understood if Adam and Eve are amoebas. The snake, in this telling, is DNA - the drive to evolve. The serpent is the idea of progress - the idea that, instead of asexual copying reproduction and immortality, we can embrace sexual reproduction and death. Which is true - progress, the drive forward, evolution can only occur if there is a corresponding notion of death. Which is part of the design - having created man in God's image, God requires that man strive to heal the gap, to remerge with God, which is only possible if the serpent is there to drive.

Let us reduce this to its most primal mystery. Primordial stew congeals, sits up, awakens. There is the moment of consciousness - the moment in which "I" is conceptualized, and, implicitly with it, "Am." But this is a moment of division - to recognize "I" we must recognize it in contrast with that which is not me - that which is you, or it. In other words, a necessary precondition for "Am" is "Not." This is the serpent's final form, Enki's linguistic madness - the bewildering fact that there is no conceivable starting point for consciousness. You have to pick between "Am" and "Not," each inconceivable without the other. This is the chicken and the egg subsumed into its most fundamental form (swallowed, perhaps, by a snake).

What does the snake do in mythology? Any answer to the question destroys the possibility of the question. It is the end of the world in the creation myth.

The end is nigh. Embrace the snake.