Sunday, November 28, 2010

Nintendo World Order (Demon Sword and Desert Commander)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 27, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 22, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 18, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

1: Five of Cups.

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

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

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

2: The Magician

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

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

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

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

3: Queen of Cups

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Nine of Wands

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

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

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

5. Nine of Swords

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

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

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

6. The Chariot

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Queen of Wands

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

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

8. Ten of Coins Reversed

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

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

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

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

I am of the third school.

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

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

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

9. The Star

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

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

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

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

10. The Lovers Reversed

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

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

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Towards an Occultism of Video Games Part I (Defender II)

Two of the most important elements of the Western occult tradition are the Kabbalah and Tarot. Are these classical occultist elements still useful in understanding the modern mysticism of the NES? Let's find out. Today, Kabbalah and Defender II. Next entry, Tarot and Defender of the Crown.

Kabbalah, at its most basic level (and again, in the Western occult tradition, which may have little to no resemblance to actual Jewish mysticism) describes ten emanations of the divine called the Sephiroth. In a sort of fractal pattern, each of these ten emanations contains the whole of the map reflected within itself, even as they are also defined by a web of interactions between and among themselves. I'll explain more as we go.

Malkuth is the lowest sephira, and corresponds roughly but not entirely to the material world. It is important to recognize, however, that the material world is still being understood mystically. To think about Malkuth is not to think about the world in a limited, personal way, but to think about the entirety of the world, both as a physical phenomenon and as a place dominated by humans. It is to think about the systems and structures we have built to sustain us, and about the dichotomy between the vast importance of individual perspective and the functionally infinite universe that renders the individual a meaningless and arbitrary accident of carbon.

Defender II predates the NES, being most associated with the arcades and Atari 2600. It had the Defender name in home release, but was actually sold as Stargate in arcades. It did not make it out in the US on the NES until 1988, when it was already a classic game - to give some comparison, this would be like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City seeing a modern release not as a legacy or classics repackaging, but as an actual new game.

Defender's status as a classic arcade game is unimpeachable. It plays like the vintage arcade classic that it is. Its sequel is less heralded, despite the fact that the zippy controls and beefed up graphics of the NES version make it play quite nicely - certainly this is as enjoyable a Defender as ever existed.

As a corporate release, Defender II is downright odd. The game was developed by Williams, one of the two classic American pinball companies (the other being Bally, whose name backwards forms one of the enemies in Defender II). Williams branched out into arcade games, and by 1988, when it finally got Defender II out for the NES, it had acquired Bally-Midway. This merger lasted until 1998, when Williams spun off its video game manufacturing business as Midway (discontinuing the Bally brand of pinball machines shortly thereafter, although the Bally brand survives given that Bally pinball was itself a spin-off of Bally Technologies, which survives, amusingly enough, as a competitor of Williams Technologies in the industry of casino machines). Midway is currently in Chapter 11, having sold the bulk of its assets to Warner Brothers, who now operates them as NetherRealm studios.

The game was published, however, by Atarisoft, which was Atari's label for publishing games other people made for systems Atari didn't own. This proved to be a fairly silly idea, and Atari gave it up almost as soon as it started it, along with the rest of Atari, which nuked itself following the 1983 video game crash. Atari had been merged into Warner in 1976, but Warner gave up on it in 1984, selling the bulk of it to Jack Tramiel, the founder of Commodore, who owned it in 1988 when Defender II came out for the NES. These days Atari is its own company again, having been punted through JTS, a minor and defunct hard drive company, who sold it to Hasbro, who in turn sold it to a French holding company called Infogrames, who finally renamed themselves as Atari.

Although Atarisoft were the owners of the publishing rights to Defender II in 1988, however, they weren't the ones to publish it in the US. That would be HAL Laboratory, a Japanese video game company that is intimately intertwined with Nintendo itself, to the point where it's at times difficult to draw a firm line between the two. HAL is where Nintendo goes for, among other things, Kirby, Smash Bros, and ancillary Pokemon games.

More than almost any other game we've looked at, then, Defender II is a product of the 1980s - a game that cycles through an insane wealth of major video game studios, managing to hit three separate continents in the process. Its actual developer, Eugene Jarvis, is a respected minor figure in the video gaming world, but here it seems more accurate to consider the game as a product of the world, something that welled up within the gaps of the industry.

Yesod is the next sephira, associated with the moon, and, more importantly, with imagination and dreams. Here our focus must shift from treating Defender as a material product to treating it as an idea. As an idea, its inspiration seems clear - its central image of UFOs vacuuming up innocent humans is straight out of 1950s flying saucers. Reading an account of the design process, however, one is struck by the fact that, like its release process, Defender was a game of accretion - ideas cobbled together and stolen from a wealth of sources, and a series of small decisions that resulted in a game, rather than a concept that was refined into a game.

From the player's perspective, of course, these two are indistinguishable. This is the great trickery of fiction - the illusion that what you see was always there, as opposed to something slowly constructed, often with little idea of what it is that was being constructed.

Only from the perspective of Yesod do we see some theory that allows us out of this mess. Through Yesod we can see that Defender, like all ideas, exists independently of thought - that like mathematics, all ideas are discovered. The process of artistic creation, appearing in the material world as a frustrating slog of refining ideas, is really just the archeology of Yesod, the disinterring of existing concepts, the cleaning of them and displaying of them.

Above Yesod, we trace the origin of the concept, as mysterious and byzantine as the origin of the species.

Hod, the third realm, is the intellectual sphere of language, mathematics, and thought. Associated with Mercury, here more in the theological than astrological sense, it is the realm of communication. This realm is uniquely important for video games, which have complex mathematical systems as their underlying communicative aspects in a way few other media necessarily do (although all are slowly converging upon this point). The orange hue associated with Mercury converts nicely to the copper that remains essential for wiring and displaying digital media. The collapse of all digital media into binary data, and then, in turn, to mere numbers is pure Hod. Here, I confess, I may only talk in theory - I am not a programmer, and my relationship to this aspect of the game is that of one standing at the base of a mountain imagining the summit. Whole Nintendo Projects could be written on the Hod of video games by writers other than myself.

Ironically, in most spheres I am far more comfortable with Hod than the fourth sephira, Netzach, representing the realm of emotions. It is only in the Nintendo Project that I find myself more comfortable here. It is Netzach I evoke every time I spin out a story of personal history and emotion.

Defender II offers little avenue for that, having not been a game I played before today - the next game, Defender of the Crown, would have served better. The underpinnings of Defender II's Netzach are being written here, today, with the joys and frustrations that are associated with the game. Note that these joys and frustrations are not merely the realm of linguistic signifiers. A first meeting with a friend I met online in a few hours, my sore shoulder, and the fact that I made a small but irritating error on some job applications yesterday all weigh on my mind as I play and write about the game. These are now linked to the game, just as games, songs, and books are linked to the experience of reading them.

What I will miss most when I convert my library to ebooks is my shelving system. My books are shelved in the order I got them, all the way back to middle school. I'm capable of shelving this way because the objects invoke memories - I can pick up a book and think "When did I get this? Where did I read it? What does the book remind me of as an object?" And then sort by where I lived, what classes I was teaching or taking, what Thanksgiving I hid away in my room away from family and read it, etc. This atlas of memory and object is not based on any signifier beyond Netzach.

These concepts were not part of Defender II when it was written - they could not have been. I wasn't even born then. But they are part of the game now. This is its passage to mythology - from physical object up the Kabbalistic tree. It is these processes that position a game on the edge of myth.

Tiphireth, the fifth sphere, associated with the golden sun, is the point past that edge. Here is the very touchpoint of the mortal and the divine, the point which is myth itself. Here the slow collapse of control to chaos and finally death that embodies arcade-style gameplay serves as the metaphor of entropy that it is. Here is where we are all the spaceship that flies fruitlessly, frantically around, trying to save everybody but, in time, failing. Here also is the image of the hero that the game never lets us become, exemplified by the handful of elite players whose interaction with the game is fundamentally unlike ours.

In Tiphireth, the game is never sloppy. Its faults are forgiven, incinerated in the radiance of imagining what it could become. Here it is worth a digression to explain the structure of the Kabbalistic tree, the map that sorts the sephiroth. A rare non-screenshot. The image is John Couthcart's map of the Kabbalah as the London Underground - a print I bought and happily hung on my wall. The bottommost point of the map is Malkuth. Yesod lies immediately above it, labeled here as Foundation, the English translation of the word. Hod lies above it and to the left, and Netzach above it and to the right - Splendour and Victory. (Note also that there are alternate paths - one can develop from Malkuth directly to either Hod or Netzach).

Tiphireth is the return to the center at Beauty. It is the very center of the map. It is the resolution of the dialectic of logic and emotion, yes, but it is also the further development of the concepts of Yesod, having the same relationship with it that it does with Malkuth. Note the name of the path that lies between them - Art. These are the ideas beyond ideas, the perfect realizations of what we try to express. In Yesod we move from human processes to ideas, now we move further, from ideas to archetypes, to legends, to meta-ideas. Everything is symbol here, and not merely symbol, but every symbol it can possibly gesture towards.

A man captured by a flying saucer falls to Earth, and it is 9/11 and a man falls from the crumbling tower, itself an image from the Tarot used to connect Hod to Netzach. A ship dives, swooping to try to rescue him, and it is Orpheus chasing after Euripides, the battle against death, fruitless, hopeless, and necessary. A ship explodes and it is every sunken ship in every war, the Lusitania, the USS Arizona, the Titanic, nameless U-Boats and Viking longships, Triremes and Ironsides. And all of this is immediate, felt not as some distant, elevated extremity but as real, present, right now.

Above Tiphireth lies abstractions upon abstractions. Next is a return to the leftmost pillar, the Pillar of Severity, named more for Geburah, the sixth sephira, than any other. Geburah is vengeance and war, that aspect of the world that purifies, incinerates all that is not holy. It is all too easy to find the Geburah of things, and Defender II is no exception. Like most video games, it is a celebration of violence. But Geburah is not unchained savagery. It is not worldly anger but righteous anger, not the chaos of the battlefield but the cold coherence of tactics.

One does not triumph in Defender II by button mashing or shooting wildly. One must be careful, strategic, and precise. In doing so, one does not restrain one's violence. One amplifies it - elevating it from a random howl to the icy fire of the warrior. Defender II affords us a way of measuring one's success as a warrior - a score. (The word's etymology is telling) The greatest warriors are the calmest - the most restrainedly tactical. This is the lesson of Geburah - both its mightiest and most terrifying aspect. It is impossible not to be afraid of the cold, calculating judgment of Geburah, impossible not to stand in awe at the player who can best execute it. These climes cannot help but offer terror.

Across the tree, on the Pillar of Mercy, lies Chesed, the seventh sephira (I should note that I have counted up from the bottom - its number is 4, as they are traditionally numbered from the top). Chesed is in fact known as Mercy - it is the universe in its protective, kindly aspects. The sheltering sky, as Alan Moore called it in Promethea. Defender II's relation to these ideas is clear enough. For all its violence, Defender II is a game where you are cast as protector. Those aspects of the game that are its Geburah are in service of its Chesed - the simple fact that your role is to protect the planet and save its people.

This is an important ethical decision - one that went into making the game. Eugene Jarvis wanted to create a fast-paced action game, but wanted also to create a game where that action was tempered ethically. The name "Defender" was chosen precisely for that tempering effect. But it is worth noting that the name is not everything - there is perhaps no dialectic in the Kabbalah more antagonistic and difficult to bridge than that between Geburah and Chesed. Protection requires force at some stage, and force requires strength, and strength requires aggression and destruction, from which we seek protection. The contours of this ecosystem are inescapable.

(Indeed, it is significant that this the only dialectic whose resolution is not offered - there is no return to the middle pillar available from Chesed or Geburah. What should be there is the Abyss, which we will omit from the present discussion.)

These final three sephiroth are extreme divine concepts. The first of them, Binah, is the highest feminine sphere, though the introduction of gender symbolism here poses a troubling ontological question. It is perhaps interesting to note, however, that it is the female, not the male, that occupies the peak position on the Pillar of Severity. Binah is the realm of final mysteries - those deep and impenetrable caves whose truths are beyond comprehension, but which we are compelled to seek anyway. At once sinister and mothering, this is the vagina dentata and mother's milk at once.

Can Defender II be elevated this high? I would say yes. The route, however, twists our way to the base of the Pillar of Severity, back to Hod. Defender II, like Defender before it, is a scrolling game - the player cycles around a map, with the screen displaying only part of the world at any given time. This was a major innovation when Defender came out - less so by 1988. But this idea, which comes out of the programming and algorithm, creates Binah. The game progresses without you. People are captured when you are not looking. There is always, in Defender II, the unknown - things happening that cannot be seen. The central mechanic of the game, the central thing that makes it the challenge that it is, is not the enemy projectiles or the difficulty of rescuing people. It is that you never have enough information. It is that there is always the unknown.

What does it mean for the game to happen unseen? When we imagine it as happening, we imagine graphics - we imagine that an offscreen abduction happens much like an onscreen one. But here, when a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody to see it, there is no rendering engine. The offscreen abductions are invisible manipulations of numbers that are not conceptualized as graphics until we zoom our ship to see them, at which point where we are collapses to data. These mysteries are not merely unseen, they are unseeable, unknowable, unimaginable. The things we cannot see happen in a way that we could not see them, and by gazing upon them, we alter the event.

From here we see more mysteries. What lies above or below the screen? What world does the world of Defender II take place in? Once we have imagined a fictional world, we must imagine what lies off-set. The answer is nothing - just as nothing is "really" happening offscreen in Defender. And yet.

Chokmah, on the other hand, is the ultimate male principle. The simple concept of action, in its purest and most fundamental form. In one sense, video games are all action. Note on the map the distance of Chokmah from Hod - they are on opposite corners of the map. (Strangely, so are Binah and Netzach) Hod, in Defender II, forms the systems that allow the game to function. The code. But the game is not complete until a player adds the necessary final ingredient. Action. Represented here by the controller, the magic wand of our time (see also the Wii), it is the will of the player, the decision to take an identity, an I within Defender II, and to take action within that role. Are our actions already circumscribed by a system of language that contains within it infinite unknowabilities? Are our actions always going to walk an impossible tightrope between mercy and severity? Yes and yes. But that does not eliminate this primal concept, and this far up the tree, primality is all we have left. There must be an action for Defender II to be a game.

Which leaves Kether, the summit of the tree and the middle pillar. The resolution. Let us return, having swept through four specific cases of mythic and magical symbolism, to the basic idea of idea and symbolism, and to Tiphireth. Within Tiphireth, all things are, as I said, symbol. All things are pregnant with meaning. The specific has given way to the archetype. What further development is possible or necessary? Kether is the monotheistic, but in its most scintillatingly total sense. No vengeful sky fairy or jihading zealot, Kether is total, absolute unity of all things. Inconceivable, because to conceive it requires a mind separate from it and thus denies it, falls out of it towards Chokmah and below.

And yet. Defender II is a set of rules. There is an ideal action. We can imagine perfect play of the game - some rarified individuals can even demonstrate it for a time, before fatigue or hunger interrupt their fusion with the machine. A world where every astronaut is saved, where every evil ship is shot, where nobody dies. A world that perfectly balances protection and destruction. A world where the mysteries and primal action work in beautiful, perfect tandem.

No player picks up the controller and experiences this world. But every player dreams of it. This perfect run, the perfect, flawless execution of video gaming, is an inseparable part of the medium. It is the ultimate object. We do not play the run ourselves. Nobody does. And yet, on the other hand, everybody does. The video game, by destroying the idea of a unitary text and instead defining the text entirely as individual experience, reconstitutes the unity of being in a more rarified and abstract sense. To play Defender is to merge with a broader consciousness, to strive towards this point. Kether too is within Defender, because Defender strives eternally towards it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

If This Advice Doesn't Work, Stephen King's Misery is A Good Writing Guide (Days of Thunder and Deadly Towers)

I'll tell you the ultimate secret of writing - the single trick that separates a good and productive writer from a lousy one. Good writers write stuff, put effort into making it good, then publish it.

There's nothing more to it than that. Myopic ambition, megalomaniacal zeal, the belief that Art Matters, a brilliant idea, the love of it, all of these are incidental. If you want to write, you probably have all of them anyway. If you want to make art of any sort, you probably have all of them. They're not enough. The really tricky bit, the thing that people fall down on repeatedly, is actually writing the thing. And the secret to getting around that? Actually write the damn thing.

An old teacher posted a quote by Philip Pullman on Facebook today about how writers are the only profession who mythologize not wanting to work. Plumbers don't talk about their lack of inspiration and about the frustration of plumber's block. It was good advice, but I pointed out the flip side - part of that is that writing is one of a few professions to be credited by a major world religion as creating the universe. In the beginning was the word. That makes writers feel self-important. (Of course, "Let there be light" might lend itself to myopic electricians too.)

The fact of the matter is, you need both. But if you don't get entranced by the mystical act of creation part of writing, at least on some level, you never start. That's the easy one, because it selects people who want to write. The real trick is writing when you don't want to write - not letting the romance and mythology of creation delude you into believing writing has to be like that. Sometimes it's just bashing words out into a big blank screen because, much to your irritation, the words are unwilling to bash themselves out.

Here. Let me use an example. A piece of writing:
Days of Thunder is not a good game. I say this a lot. This is largely because most of what came out for the NES is not a good game. Not only are they usually not good games, they're usually not even interesting games. With alarming frequency, I fire up a game and discover that it plays almost indistinguishably from a dozen other games.
In Days of Thunder's case, it's a racing game. You drive your car around a track. I have already played four games exactly like it. This fifth one is distinct inasmuch as it has a visually different interface. It is indistinct in that it presents the exact same style of gameplay - go fast, dodge obstacles, keep on the track, rinse, wash, repeat. One rapidly runs out of things to say about this. There's not some new experience of the game that wasn't there a year ago when I wrote about Al Unser Jr Racing. It's the same damn game.
This poses less of a barrier than it might of. It was a problem I recognized with the blog format early on. So I started altering my style to accommodate it. That's why all the weird and pretentious stuff about mythology and gods came in - because I needed a framework in which a game that I've basically talked about four times already can somehow generate an entry.
One key piece of that framework is the morass of popular culture. This is because popular culture is wonderfully hi-fi. The balance of hi-fi and lo-fi is an interesting and important one in art and thought. Lo-fi culture includes books and history - things where one must fill in gaps and imagine. Lo-fi culture lends itself to books, dim incandescent lighting, candles, and tea. Hi-fi culture is overwhelming and big. Popular culture, which generates more events in 24 hours than it is actually possible to follow, is the epitome of the hi-fi - bright, loud, garish, and intoxicating. Generally speaking, I prefer wonton mixing of the two extremes - to make the scale of history a sensory overload, or to treat the crassly commercial with careful and awed reverence.
Days of Thunder lends itself well to that, being based on an utterly forgettable movie that is significant and well-remembered for exactly one reason, which is that Tom Cruise met Nicole Kidman on the set of it. Tom Cruise is an odd instance in popular culture. He is as iconic as it is possible for a pop star to be, and to some extent deservedly so, as he is, on his day, a damn fine actor.
Unfortunately, he has made one key decision that has undermined that, which is joining an abusive cult worshipping a space god. This has left other decisions that, in the hands of other stars, are just lovable cheek, as signs of complete insanity. For instance, when other celebrities divorce their wives and marry people wildly outside their socially acceptable dating range, they are more or less charming. When members of insane cults who believe that Xenu the Space Conquerer is chained up under the Pyrenees do it, it's creepy.
Actually, the real problem is that Scientologists are inherently creepy. Always. Everything they do is really, really creepy. As Tom Cruise has become more and more associated with being a Scientologist, he has, by direct and causal extension, become more and more creepy. The boyish smile that once screamed "I'm a loveable rebel" now screams "I want to lick your engrams."
The result is that there is only one Tom Cruise story. And that's that he's screaming about frozen people in volcanos and swatting at Body Thetans like they're bugs in a bad acid trip. Tom Cruise is thus a rare phenomenon. A part of hi-fi, fast-paced popular culture that exists in glorious lo-fi.
This was, as I suggested, not always true. Once upon a time, Tom Cruise was sane, married to Nicole Kidman, and, although a Scientologist, capable of going out in public without seeming like he's overly concerned about the Marcab Confederacy (whose capital is one of the tail stars of the Big Dipper). Part of this is Nicole Kidman, who has experienced her own flavor of precipitous career decline, having basically managed to avoid being in a hit, or, indeed, a critical darling in about eight years. (This may be related to the fact that Nicole Kidman is now 80% plastic. Despite this, she provided something like a moderating influence on Mr. Cruise, just as he provided her the opportunity to be the classic Hollywood leading lady she apparently wanted to be instead of the supporting/character actor she is.
Days of Thunder recalls this time before the collapse, when Cruise and Kidman were part of one of the great Hollywood Power Couples, instead of a fading plastic actress who's largely regarded as box office poison, and a weirdo who's freaked out about the reincarnated trauma from the incident that implanted the Airplane Door Goals in humanity. It is difficult to view the game, crappy as it is (and it's quite crappy - extensive effort failed to produce any sense of how to actually drive around the track in any way resembling "quickly") as anything other than a charming nostalgia, a naive homage to a simpler era where a supercouple could be in a cute racecar movie instead of being Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who, although both fantastic actors, are frankly a deeply postmodern supercouple.
On one level, this is not the Days of Thunder that existed in my youth. We didn't know, in 1990, that Tom Cruise was deeply concerned about the Teegeeack people. We didn't know it was all going to go terribly wrong. But somehow, it works. Perhaps because the implosion of Cruise and Kidman is so ridiculous, its past is strangely unsullied by it. In any case, for one of the first times in the project, the nostalgia worked.
It's a pretty standard entry. I didn't really want to write it. I hit Days of Thunder and thought "Oh Christ, another lousy movie game, and a racing game to boot, this is going to be rough." I seized on the Tom Cruise angle out of desperation - I don't think there's a single other thing I can say about Days of Thunder that wouldn't just copy another entry.

The only thing that really entertained me writing the entry was working in the Scientology references, all of which, by the way, are actually real. Actually, I had to drop some Scientology references because, unbelievably, they were too weird for the Nintendo Project. The Obscene Dog Incident, for instance, which Wikipedia describes as a giant brass dog shortly after the creation of the universe that sucked people in via an electronic current and shot them out its own asshole. That is an actual Scientology belief, and I honestly couldn't bring myself to make an off-handed reference to it, because it's just too weird. (Though I quickly decided to work it in here instead)

It's not that the entry is a lie when it talks about the pleasure of the game's nostalgia. It's not, although it may not exactly be honest either. Its deception is more one of exaggerated passion. Those are certainly my thoughts about Days of Thunder, but they are not thoughts that clamored for expression. Rather, I knew I had to write about Days of Thunder. I found the most interesting angle I could. I still didn't love the idea. But here's where the titanically obvious and non-secret secret of blogging comes in - I wrote it anyway. Because the blog needed to be fed, and that was what I had to feed it with.

Sometimes blog entries are a blast. I've sat at the computer with a big shit-eating grin banging out some of them, laughing at the ridiculousness of it and enjoying every second of spinning it out. The rabbit entry? Ridiculously fun to write. Sexual awakening and Bubble Bobble? I don't know that I'd call it fun to write, but it was certainly something I felt strongly about as I was writing, and, at the risk of arrogance, knew was pretty good as it was coming out.

Those entries are why you write. But it's unsustainable. Sometimes entries don't feel that brilliant. This has little to nothing to do with entries being that brilliant - I have no idea which of my entries are actually my best. It's just that you can't always feel like you're spitting out great art. Sometimes you just sit down and write because, well, you're a writer. I decided that the Nintendo Project was going to exist, I learned how to write it, and now I'm responsible for it, and I have to go make it every once in a while, because I took on that responsibility. And some days I think nobody's actually reading this shit, but, well, that's not what matters. The fact that I decided to do this blog is what matters. It's like getting a pet. You don't get to starve the pet because you don't feel like feeding it. If you're a writer, and you're writing a blog or a book, you don't get to not write it because you don't feel like it. Sometimes you're lucky and you get to feel like it. Other times you write a thousand words about Days of Thunder for no reason other than that those are the next thousand words you have to write.

What's important is accepting that you're gonna write crap. You have to. You don't necessarily have to actually write it - I generally try to avoid it. But accept that it could happen. This is true of any creative enterprise. Take Deadly Towers. The thing Deadly Towers is probably best known for is that Seanbaby declared it the worst Nintendo game ever - a fact that is why it's a particularly good example here. He's not wrong. The game is absolutely awful. Everything he says about it is true.

What is particularly interesting is that the producer of the game e-mailed Seanbaby about the game. His defense is the charming "it wasn't THAT bad for the times...some of the others are WAY worse." Which is A, probably true - the bottom of the barrel of NES games is a pretty awful place, and picking a worst game is actually probably more subjective than picking a best one. And B, it speaks to what was probably the reality of the game. Nobody phoned it in or tried to make a shitty game. They just had their budget and their deadline, and sat down and made the game they could make. It didn't work. It sucked. At various points, probably everyone involved knew it sucked. But, notably, this was not used as a reason to simply stop being video game creators.

And as a result, Deadly Towers is better than any video game I've ever made, because I've never made one. Because if you don't have a novel published, Twilight is better than your best novel.

A student of mine today mentioned that he wanted to take up writing again. He also mentioned that he struggled with really bad depression. I told him that was actually some of the best training for writing you can have. I've had days where I didn't want to get out of bed. They sucked dick. I got out of bed anyway. Not because I wanted to. But because how I felt didn't matter. The fact that Krypto needed food, or my class needed teaching, or I had to pee mattered. If you've overcome depression and forced yourself to have a day, whether it was a good or bad one, you have learned one of the essential skills of writing - stopping caring about what you want and just doing it. Writing repeatedly on deadline is good training here as well. Learning to write because it's what you do. Got me a PhD that way, I did.

I'd add two other pieces of advice, not that I'm a big-shot novelist whose word is gospel. (But again, I did write a dissertation, I get a blog out regularly, and the novel is coming out nicely, thank you for asking) First, go a little bit mad. It helps. Some people go for drugs here. I wouldn't know, but I hear they sometimes work. But it doesn't really matter. Learn to see the world in a willfully strange way. My way of choice is usually ridiculously mythic, and it works. Your way may not be. Douglas Adams clearly saw the world as a source of dry, frustrating humor. Alan Moore, for all his insane mysticism, is clearly at his best describing emotional intensity. Learn to see something in the world that's weird. That's how you write about something.

I don't have to work to come up with insane and odd structures for Nintendo Project entries anymore. I've learned to pick a weird facet of a game, and just write about that facet until it looks like an entry. I literally started the Days of Thunder section with no idea beyond "I'm going to write about Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, because this is a game that is, quite by accident, about their marriage." And actually, when I started this entry, which I knew was going to be about writing, and, more broadly, about productivity, I had no idea where Days of Thunder fit in - I knew how Deadly Towers did, but Days of Thunder was in the way and needed an entry. I started writing the bit I knew, then realized I needed an example - something I could write about how little I wanted to write about. Then came the idea of embedding one entry inside another, and having the other entry be a critical commentary on the one inside it. Where did I get that idea? Partly needing something to go after "Let me use an example." Probably partly because I spend a fair part of my day being a little bit insane, and in the last week part of that insanity was reading David Mitchell's excellent Cloud Atlas, which is all about nested structures. But mostly because I needed to put something there, and I'd learned by then how to put things that are the Nintendo Project into empty Blogger windows.

"Where do you get your ideas from" is the wrong question. Ideas are easy. Nobody ever asks "Man, you're interesting to talk to, where do you get ideas for things to say?" This is because it's a stupid question. You get your ideas from learning to look at the world and go "Oh, neat." Or "Why is this like that?" Or "What would happen if this happened?" Learn to ask those questions, and, perhaps more importantly, learn to care about the answers. If you can do that, you can write.

The other piece of advice I'll give is to be criticized. Not just ignored. Having your writing be ignored is the easiest thing in the world. No, what you have to do is seek out an actively hostile universe. You have to find someone who hates your writing, and who not only hates it, but is willing to articulate in merciless detail every single fault that it has. And then you have to shut up and take that criticism, go back to the piece of writing (or start a new piece of writing), and try to make it so they won't hate the new one. It's an awful experience. As brutally demoralizing as exists. I've been on both sides of it. But it's absolutely vital, because it's how you learn to write for an audience. It's how you learn to see writing as something that's going to be read.

But mostly? Writers are the people who write even when they don't want to.

Special bonus advice:

Q: How do I become a magician?

A: Go do magic.