Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Albia, Albion, Arkham (Dash Galaxy in the Alien Asylum and Day Dreamin' Davey)

Depression has the annoying effect of transmuting a blank page into a sort of existential god towering over you, leaving you with the corresponding suspicion that you're spending a huge amount of time spinning out utter crap. This is certainly a feeling the blog has been producing in spades of late.

Dash Galaxy in the Alien Asylum and Day Dreamin' Davey provide apt enough metaphors for the overall mental condition. The former captures the standard horror of the idiosyncratic - waking up in an asylum of some sort with no obvious avenues of escape. This is standard horror movie stuff - the awful realization that one is stuck in a world in which the primary source of power is displaced and unobtainable, and very possibly out to get you. The horror of waking up in an asylum is twofold. First, there is the realization that you are mad. Seemingly one of the most common madnesses is paranoia, and with good reason in the video game era. My generation grew up on video games, where you do, in fact, live your entire life correctly thinking something is trying to kill you. No wonder our archetypal madness is a sort of classic paranoia of shadowy social forces trying to off us. Second, and more horrifying, once you are in an asylum, your paranoia is no longer madness. They really are trying to get you.

Dash Galaxy in the Alien Asylum is thus a terror of a game. Displaced only mildly into the world of dashing science fiction, it's a game about trying to escape from a strange alien prison. That the prison is utterly escapable is par for the course - everything in video game worlds is escapable, designed, in fact, to be escaped from. This is the archetypal asylum of nightmare and story - designed both with malicious and sadistic intent towards its prisoners, and designed to be broken out of.

I don't like it. I spend too much of my time flirting at the edges of actual and willful insanity to take pleasure in this sort of horror. It's not that I think they're coming to take me away so much as that I'm actively and utterly terrified of the possibility of a malevolent world, and wholly uncertain in my day to day existence whether or not I live in one. Day to day existence becomes a sort of lengthy midgame with the Cartesian demon, with the growing realization that I have no idea if I'm winning or blundering into a trap at any given moment.

This monomaniacal focus on creating art is, well, productive, but self-immolating. I've described the novel I'm writing as a novel-sized brain-tumor of which I have successfully extracted 9500 words. My bigger fear is all the stuff clattering around up here that's not the novel. The amount of crap I want to bludgeon out of my head into the world is unnerving. Still, here I am, clattering away at the keyboard, slowly transitioning from being a human being with some sort of social dimension to an existence comprised entirely of information, a steam of language, a firing of text and idea.

What keeps me connected here are a mass of tenuous cords. The genuine belief that universe is such that if anything ever gets too fucked up the Doctor will pop by in the TARDIS to fix it? The knowledge that Superman is inherently good? Or, in my most desperate moments, the idea that art matters?

Day Dreamin' Davey is a forgettable game by HAL Laboratories - so forgettable it lacks even a Wikipedia entry, meaning that, among other things, it is less memorable than Albia, Iowa, a "city" (according to Wikipedia) of 3000 or so. As it is entirely likely that I am the only person on Earth to have both been to Albia, Iowa and played Day Dreamin' Davey, the comparison is not entirely inept. Albia is the sort of post-Rockwellian rural mess that 30 years of Reagan and post-Reaganism (with its accompanying agrarian fantasies in what is a stellar feat of cruel irony) has created. That these rural tombs are the sick legacy of 30 years of a rapidly expanding income gap and the massive consolidation of wealth into the hands of the richest 1% of Americans. The problem of Albia can be summed up with one simple fact - in 2000, in the entire town, there were only 82 children living there. Replacement rate? Forget it. This is a city that exists for no reason other than its failure to fully collapse.

Day Dreamin' Davey, on the other hand, is a strangely ambiguous number. On the one hand, it opens with a classically Rockweillian depiction of high school. Bullies, stereotypical classes and teachers, and a lone daydreaming protagonist who spends most of the game in fantasy sequences - a medieval joust here, a Western there. On the one hand, it fits squarely into the sort of utopianized narrative we use to forget about the collapsing segments of American society. By imagining that these doomed towns are agrarian Rockwell towns waiting to bring a newfound Clark Kent into the world, we manage to conveniently forget the fact that they are, in empirical fact, a dying force in American politics that has been deluded and bullied into supporting the policies that are destroying them.

On the other, however, Davey needs nothing so much as an escape from this fantasy. He finds many, fleeing into traditional narrative fantasy worlds. I find odd comfort here. My love of social realism is profoundly limited. Indeed, my love of realism is profoundly limited, and social realism is merely my least favorite genre within an already dismissed aesthetic movement. I'd much prefer to escape along some mythic axis, trade in the material meanderings of the ostensibly real sphere for the play of symbols and ideas. So what if this is called "going mad." It beats the realization that my ancestral home is collapsing under the weight of a political shift that shows no sign of being affected by individual action.

The idea that the same vector might provide escape velocity from Albia to Albion has to appeal. If it doesn't, what other escapes are possible?


  1. I like your blog. Sometimes I think you're arrogant, sometimes I think you're just depressed, sometimes i think you're really smart. Sometimes the language barrier keeps me from understanding some things, but i really like the concept and all. way to go.

  2. Philip,

    A couple of years ago you joined the xkcd forums and ran a thread called "ask a literary theorist" which I, as a then-member of the forums, have *never forgotten* because it was GREAT.

    Tonight I was reading the webcomic Homestuck and thought of you, since I remember that your focus was on video games as well as comics, and it came to me that I would like to hear your thoughts on it. (If you don't know Homestuck, it's really friggin good.) It was pretty easy to find you through Google since your xkcd handle was your full real name.

    This seems to be your most recent project, so I thought I would have the best chance of reaching you here. I would like to add you on facebook or something, or at least exchange e-mails and get your thoughts on Homestuck if you have any, or on what interests you about Doctor Who since I'm a huge fan of that as well.

    My e-mail is quixotess at gmail dot com. Thanks for your time!

  3. I need to look these up. just when I thought I had already played ever NES game there ever was.