Monday, December 27, 2010

Your Lithosphere (Dig Dug 2 and Digger: The Legend of the Lost City)

The number of video games based on going upwards far exceeds the number based on going downwards. The former category includes a wealth of games in which you fly. The latter includes D&D-type dungeon crawls, of which there are only a few on the NES, and a handful of arcade-style games that, due to the way in which verbs work, had two of their number appear together here today.

In Alan Moore's landmark Promethea, he describes two complimentary desires of humanity - the serpentine desire to ascend, and the dove-like desire to descend. Ascent is linked to human improvement, while descent is linked to self-sacrifice. The value of descent is that it is the means by which knowledge gained through ascent is disseminated through the world. It is, in other words, the engine by which good ideas turn into actual transformation of human consciousness.

Video games are the more natural ally of the serpentine, and so this pair of games is an interesting side trip from the norm that is worth exploring.

Of the two, it is Digger that is the most obvious game. A simple cave-based quest for treasure acquisition, it is not surprising that it was developed by Rare, because it plays very much like a mediocre game by people who are going to make a good one eventually. The ideas are there, the controls are reasonably sharp, it's just that the game lacks that final little bit that elevates it from forgettably fun to a good game.

But in it, we come upon a real challenge to our initial division of serpentine and Crap. I need an adjective here. Ooh. Columbidine. There's a fun word to coin. OK. So our initial division of serpentine and columbidine. If the columbidine is supposed to be the mode of sacrifice, then the quest for treasure, which is the major thrust of underground games, is, if not antithetical to the mode of self-sacrifice, at least orthogonal to it. Massive acclimation of personal wealth is only seen as noble self-sacrifice by, well, the Republican party. Further complicating this is that we are in a cave here. Caves are let's say, generally a bit more associated with snakes than with doves, who, and I'm speaking in the most general case here, tend not to like caves because they're rubbish for flying in.

So, yes, that's a theory dead and dusted, right? Yeah, you're new here, aren't you? We usually don't give a theory the time of day unless it's spectacularly and self-evidently wrong. Utter implausibility is our baseline reading. And anyway, any time you work up a nice dualism like serpentine/columbidine instincts, you know you're going to have some intermingling.

After all, it is, in Alan Moore's telling, the serpentine instinct that leads to genetic descent. Actually, we already did a whole entry on this. So it is clear that the serpentine and columbidine instincts are closely related. The will to improve and climb upwards is inexorably linked to a will to descend and bring light to the darkest of places. In which case Digger provides an interesting insight on this process. In Digger, the acquisition of treasure justifies further descent. In other words, the serpentine process of questing for riches justifies and fuels the columbidine process of descending further into the darkness, which in turn enables further serpentine treasure looting. The process is, furthermore, sustained by delaying the self-sacrificing instinct - that is, by avoiding death and maintaining one's lives. It is, in other words, the serpentine instinct that both motivates and curtails the columbidine instinct. Inasmuch as the columbidine is a reframing of the Freudian death drive, this was already clear - the death drive relies on the sex drive to sustain itself, because the death drive in its pure form is unsustainable. Thus the road to columbidine descent is paved with shiny treasures.

Dig Dug 2 is weird. Part of this is that Dig Dug, as a franchise, is weird. It actually makes a fairly good nerd test - is Dig Dug a classic video game, or a classic video game franchise? I mean, it's clear that Dig Dug is a franchise, given that it had a sequel, but actually, Dig Dug 2, despite being the better game, is not really a classic. So presumably Dig Dug is a classic game, but not a classic franchise. Except, actually, that's wrong, because the 1982 arcade game Dig Dug and the 1999 Mr. Driller are actually part of the same series, and that Mr. Driller is the son of Dig Dug. And Mr. Driller is, actually, a pretty solid arcade classic. So, you know. That's fun trivia.

But yes, in any case. Dig Dug 2 is not a classic game. This is not for any particular reason. It's a fun arcade-stye game. Unlike regular Dig Dug, in which the screen is used to depict a vertical cross-section of an underground region, Dig Dug 2 takes place on a series of islands. Digging is replaced with the alternate action of creating massive fault lines through the island and sinking portions of it underwater, preferably with nasty things in tow.

So, in this regard, not a game about digging in the sense of descent. Rather, it is a game about digging destructively. The act of digging is one of unmaking the established terrain - in a very literal sense one of destroying the Earth. But this destruction is not wanton, but rather carefully controlled. It is destruction in the sense of surgery. One destroys tracts of land to excise the nasty things. The risk of doing so is twofold - first, one can inadvertently sink one's self - one has to quickly move off the fault line or risk immediate death. Second, one can inadvertently trap monsters in closer proximity to one's self. Failure to eliminate enough bad things with an incision leaves you stuck on a smaller island with lots of monsters - not a good outcome.

In other words, to dig is still sacrificial. It is a game about cutting away the negative, about judicious and planned destruction. This is columbidine in the extreme - a game about plunging into the earth to purify it, risking one's life in the process. Dig Dug is not a game of treasure collection - occasionally a mushroom or some fruit shows up, but inasmuch as the game has a plot, the plot appears, to the player, to be primarily about destroying the monsters. The player travels from island to island, it seems, only to purify them. The game is endless - there are 72 levels, after which the game simply repeats. In other words, the act of purification has no end. The goal is simply to eliminate as much of the evil as one can before dying.

This is the unusual thing about the columbidine. Unlike the serpentine, it does not end straightforwardly in a moment of glory. This is an aspect of video games that, thus far, we have been hard-pressed to talk about at length, mostly because I don't usually reach them. But here, because there is no ending to reach, ironically, we can talk about it. The columbidine video game is simply an attempt to stave off death. Its goal is not victory, or triumph, but mere survival. And, furthermore, its goal can never actually be obtained. It is not a common sort of video game. But even that is strangely appropriate. The fragility of the columbidine game - its endless, ephemeral struggle against death - makes it a genre that is oddly suited to its own obscurity.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Now I Have a Blog Entry, Ho, Ho, Ho (Dick Tracy and Die Hard)

The NES is not a cultural event, but is rather cultural scenery. It was not until late in the lifecycle of the NES, and, coincidentally, late in the alphabet that video gaming attained the status of event. For most of the NES's lifespan, cultural events happened elsewhere. Specifically, in the movies. We've talked obliquely about this before, but today we have two games based on movies, so it is perhaps time to delve back in more detail.

The first is Dick Tracy, a movie-as-non-event that I talked about before, and that Keith Phipps has already explored in exquisite detail. It's an interesting question - what if you threw a massive cultural event and nothing happened? I remember the fervor of Dick Tracy - the mass of advertised rogues, all of them looking fascinatingly devilish, the iconic yellow jacket... I was excited for the movie. And then it fizzled, in no small part because, as I remember with some vividness, the movie was pretty awful. I watched it having little to no idea what was going on. (The same was true, to be fair, of the first two Batman movies, which have aged, to my mind, extremely well, in particular the delightfully insane Batman Returns.)

I call this project a psychochronography. I suppose this is as good a time as any to define the term. I coined it from the existent psychogeography, an artistic movement generally associated with England. Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell is probably the best-known example, but the work of Iain Sinclair deserves major underlining as well. Psychogeography is a sort of gonzo history focused through the specific lens of geography. The simplest example is probably Iain Sinclair's book London Orbital, in which he walks the M25 around London, describing the experiences and relating them to the broader history of the places and the development of the idea of London. Other examples include Alan Moore's spoken word piece The Highbury Working, in which he focuses on a small segment of London and uses an extended narrative of its history to try to resuscitate its identity and culture. From Hell takes a different spin on it, offering a psychogeography of Victorian England as a whole, thus relating the idea more heavily to time, though the graphic novel's most obviously psychogeographic segment comes when Gull takes a tour of London to uncover an extended network of occult symbols.

By psychochronography, I mean the application of this process of interweaving memory and history to the material remnants of history. That is, I seek to create a map of the metaphors that were underlying my own life. In truth such a map is inconceivable - for one, personal history is not fixed in a convenient spatial frame. This is why I rejected the more obvious psychochronology - because chronology suggests a successful ordering into a timeline. I am not making a timeline any more than Iain Sinclair was making a physical map in London Orbital. Psychogeography is not psychocartography.

But something must be fixed and ordered to allow the narrative to progress. Psychogeography creates this by wandering the backroads, taking walking tours of areas more often accessed by cars, and, generally speaking, transgressing the normal lines of transit through a space. I produce the same effect by  ordering my musings along the the line of alphabetical order of Nintendo Games. No matter how you handle this problem, however, you eventually encounter a landmark.

Dick Tracy is, however, an odd landmark - an example of ruins. The frame of the event is still there. Even some of its major contents, most notably the film itself, which can readily be watched. One might think that is the whole of the landmark, or at least its major content, but to do so is to misunderstand the focus of psychochronography. The event is not defined primarily by its actual history, but by its role in memory. Hence it is the period of anticipation - the period where I believed, with all my heart, that Dick Tracy was the coolest thing ever - that is most relevant to this project.

Or, more accurately, it is the way in which subsequent touring of this cultural space uncovers previously inaccessible knowledge about my own experience. Having little to no idea who anyone in the film other than Madonna was, I did not appreciate the insane array of talent who wasted their time in this movie. Nor did I have proper respect for the Dick Tracy comic, an absurd piece of over the top violence that had its zenith, where zenith is defined as "weirdest point," in the 1960s when it became a bizarre piece of science fiction about people on the moon. (I am, as usual, not making this up)

Nowadays, when relatively arcane and mediocre properties such as Tron, Marmaduke, Land of the Lost, Yogi Bear, Speed Racer, and Get Smart are mined for movies despite the paucity of anyone who actually gives a damn about them, it is easy to overlook the strangeness of this method of cultural event creation, in which what is essentially a hazy half-memory is imbued with bizarre importance and sold off as a cultural treasure whose revival thus qualifies as an event. That this is, at best, utter nonsense is beside the point.

To sustain this illusion, however, it is necessary to mobilize the larger engine of culture in order to make it appear that the unloved property is, in fact, major. Hence the flood of action figures, happy meals, behind the scenes specials, and other such nonsenses, including video games. Where this becomes relevant to my (and I'll happily stipulate that they are insane) interests is this - does the existence of false nostalgia (a term I lovingly steal from this article) corrupt the project? With these quagmires of artificial history and myth laid throughout the relevant territory, does this invalidate the project, allowing the mythos of my past to be overwritten by commercialized treacle? 

Judging from the game, it's a soberingly bad threat. Dick Tracy, as a game, makes one long for the movie. Awkward detective action, the game plays like the worst stereotypes of movie licensed video games - a slapped together piece of shovelware. Created without thought or effort, the game is the epitome of false nostalgia - existing only to delude the player into thinking some other activity (watching the movie in this case) would be a source of pleasure. False nostalgia thrives on this - the deferring of pleasure and fun into some other part of the culture. We watch I Love the 80s to wax nostalgic about movies that we have no nostalgia for in order to build up the illusion of nostalgia for the purposes of being made to buy something new, but at every turn the actual object of pleasure is displaced - the fun is somewhere else. Dreadful practice. To be avoided at all costs. 

As a game, Die Hard is no better - a potentially neat idea marred by the fact that nobody actually took any time to make the game. There's a good game to be done this way - slowly infiltrating a building and systematically taking out terrorists. It's just that, you know, it wasn't done that way. It was done half-assedly. But there is one significant difference between Die Hard and Dick Tracy as video games - Dick Tracy came out in 1990, the same year as the movie. Die Hard came out in 1991, three years after the film in question, and a year after it's sequel.

It is separated, then, from the cultural event. And, furthermore, it's tough not to call Die Hard a cultural event, given that it was actually a good movie that people remember fondly, as opposed to Dick Tracy. This is the first lesson of this territory, then - that even though there is false nostalgia, that does not remove the genuine possibility of this landscape. Indeed, false nostalgia amounts to little more than psychochronography done maliciously - the remapping of memory and history not to produce insight, but to produce money, and generally not for you. 

One solution to this dilemma is simply to be pickier - to, when confronted with crap games like Dick Tracy that exist as part of a pseudo-event, or, for that matter, crap games like Die Hard that are just pale references to an event, toss them out and seek myth elsewhere. Certainly I could do that, and have a much more focused blog with reliable quality. But that's cheating.

No. Instead, let's go Modernist. The full Ezra Pound. Make it new. Make it weird. Make it interesting. Because usually, the culture is. I mean, look at Dick Tracy - a sublimely overinflated cultural event built around a comic that saw its best days, and, for that matter, its weirdest days ages past. Or Die Hard, its strange merging of Bruce Willis, then better known as a comic actor, with the tropes of 80s action films that it itself is the exemplar of.

Be it resolved, then. Skip the boring bits. In fact, let's codify this. Sandifer's razor. The scruffier counterpart of Occam's Razor. Given the choice among equally plausible hypotheses, pick the most interesting one.

This is the only possible salvation from bad 80s action movie video game spinoffs. 

Monday, December 13, 2010

All of the Angels are Cowboy Singers (Cowboy Kid)

Special thanks to Tracy Grammer for her patient answers to my overly verbose questions. Please do yourself (and her) a favor, and buy some music at the band's website, or at hers.

I have long been an advocate for the view that art is poorly understood as sketching out a world. Video games make this clearer than most things. Cowboy Kid is no exception. A Western narrative of staggering minimalism, the story amounts to "You walk into town, get armed, get hired as sheriff, and go about busting bad guys." A sort of merge of a beat-em-up and Legend of Zelda, complete with "It's Dangerous to Go Alone" moment, the game is not firmly situated on one end or the other of the good/bad distinction.

What I like about it, though, is that it seems to me to capture the sense of placelessness of the best Westerns. I'm thinking here of The Man With No Name, a series of movies where the locations, chronology, and geography are ambiguous at best and completely screwed up at worst. (Chicago, apparently, is right near Phoenix) The amorphous, clumsy "worlds" of video games are better suited to Westerns than other genres because the Western is used to working in a mythic place that is as much dream as reality.

As a result, and perhaps somewhat strangely, I associated westerns inexorably with Dave Carter. In the fall of 2003, a little more than a year after he died of a massive heart attack in Hadley, Massachusetts, not half an hour from where I was born, I bought my first album of Dave Carter's music - his 2001 album with Tracy Grammer, Drum Hat Buddha. And thus began a seven year affair with his music that saw his work with Tracy Grammer rapidly take the top slot of favorite music, a slot it has held since, fending off such luminaries as Vienna Teng and The Wailin' Jennys, to say nothing of earlier favorites like The Smiths, Tori Amos, and R.E.M.

Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, among their preposterous number of gifts, were uniquely good at describing albums. Their second album, Tanglewood Tree, was billed as "the world's first Buddhist Country album," while Drum Had Buddha had my favorite description of what they did: Postmodern mythic American folk.

There are many things to love about his music. He is as sharp a songwriter as has ever strummed a guitar - capable of twisting a melody that does not stick in your head so much as haunt it. In a genre of music that typically values a confessional authenticity (exemplified in this case by Dar Williams), or an equally biographical authenticity (Richard Shindell being the current king of this, although the Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger tradition speaks volumes), Carter's music stood out. It would be deeply misleading to call his work inauthentic. Rather, it exists on a different spectrum entirely.

Here is where the mythic comes in. Carter studied briefly with Joseph Campbell, popularizer of the Jungian archetype approach to mythology. I discovered Campbell in late 1997, as Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer were beginning to tour together. I was in my second of three years in high school, having fought for and won permission to take senior electives in English on the basis of my having completed college-level English work (though, frustratingly, I had to agree to take the sophomore-level English class as well). I signed up for a class called Modernism and Mythology, which turned out to be a thorough overview of mythological tropes and Jungian archetypes vis-a-vis Joseph Campbell.

This was my first exposure to literary theory, a cavernous rabbit hole I would tumble down at length subsequently, and now shout upwards from the bottom of. Since then, Campbell has fallen from my favor, more because his followers produce bewilderingly bad and boring scholarship than because his central idea of observing pan-cultural mythic tropes was a dud for me. If I have a complaint about Campbell, it's that, after observing the fascinating phenomenon of cross-cultural mythic elements - things like the unsettling preponderance of serpents in creation myths across different and independent cultures - he takes the utterly depressing (and morally questionable) position of positing a monomyth, a sort of master narrative that all myths stem from. The cultural imperialism involved is lost on Campbell.

But other possibilities exist. Postmodernism is full of them, as is the largely abandoned but still fascinating and productive process of syncretism. These days, other than Unitarian Universalists, who take the concept a mite far for my tastes, syncretic faiths are mostly small blends in third world countries - fascinating, but obscure. I personally love it, because syncretism avoids the imperialism of Campbell. A good syncretic combination merges multiple concepts into something new, as opposed to subsuming one into the other.

And then there is Dave Carter. A folk singer whose syncretism transcends dry theology and turns to art. It would be a mistake to treat Carter as some sort of prophet. Or, perhaps more accurately, it would be a mistake to treat him as just a prophet. The folk tradition is central to what Carter did - the personal, material intimacy of folk music is alive and well in his songs. It is not that Carter seems equally at ease in the home of the gods or in a seedy bar on the outskirts of town. It is that he seems not to see a difference between the two. This is inspired by Campbell, clearly - Tracy Grammer says, in fact, that reading Joseph Campbell, she could literally hear Carter's voice in Campbell's words.
The result are songs that feel like dreams that have taken form. Take his glorious song "The Mountain," a song begins with Tracy Grammer's haunting vocal, "I was born in a forked-tongued story, raised up by merchants and drug store liars. Now I walk on the paths of glory, one foot in ice and one in fire." At once mythic and personal, set in some other world of magic and this one simultaneously, the song pulls you in, sketching out not a real place, but a place that is somehow more real than mere reality.

Carter was, if not a prophet, at least someone who was unmistakably playing with live ammunition when he worked with mythology. He was not merely evoking the tropes or making allusions, but rather using myths actively - making something new, in the genuine and magical syncretic tradition. If he was a prophet, it was not a prophet in any sense we have seen one before, but a new sense. He was a postmodern prophet, one who sought not to tell The True Story, but a story - a real, live story. When I asked Tracy Grammer what she took post-modernism to be, she said that it was "Refusal to adhere to the notion of One Truth -- and that includes the truth of the story conveyed inside the song itself, and how we as artists choose to represent that song (our truth) to the world." Were it that more prophets spoke like that.

It is here, perhaps, that Carter most resonates with me. And always has, though it was not until talking with Tracy Grammer that I knew the words to say it in. Mythos as live ammunition is central to the Nintendo Project. The idea that I can take the lowest of cultural detritus and, because it was part of the deep consciousness of my childhood and generation, make myth out of it. It's an enduring gamble. A balancing act. A mythology of materialism.

This materialism has its consequences. Carter and Grammer knew this. Grammer still does. Every album contains a small note – “By this merit may all beings swiftly realize omniscience,” for instance. These dedications of merit are a Buddhist practice that amount to a declaration of intent – that the album, the work of art itself, ease suffering in the world. This is one consequence. Others are harsher.

When myths are brought forth to walk the streets, when they are brought to life, they are brought also to death. Neil Gaiman once said that the real trouble with stories is that "if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death." This story ends on a hotel room floor in Hadley, Massachusetts.

But not yet.

It is difficult for me to imagine Dave Carter as a digital figure, although apparently he did, in his lengthy lead-up to his career with Tracy Grammer (which began when he was in his 40s), record computerized music. But something about his music seems to me strangely reminiscent of video games. I alluded to it above - the way in which a game like Cowboy Kid is strangely out of place and time. The result is that, with a video game, one plays less with objects than with tropes. This is the strange nature of the alleged immersiveness of video games. They do not immerse you in a world, but rather in a set of ideas. Cowboy Kid is not a Western story, but every Western story - the opportunity to experience the raw form of the genre.

This is a very tricky thing to accomplish, artistically. Art, in the Aristotelean tradition, is imitative. Imitations of imitation get to staggering abstraction pretty quickly, making this sort of meta-fictional move inherent to video games tough to make work. This is part of why video games are not, often, great art - because their narratology is incredibly difficult.

To make this work in song is extraordinary. But Dave Carter did it. Part of this is an incredible gift for wordplay that paints vivid abstractions - a line like "I walk the Occam's Razor way through priests and circus clowns" is at once inscrutable and vivid in a way that makes me gape in awe every time I think about it - a truly fantastic lyric. And there are few images more chillingly threatening than "a twisting pillar spun of dust and blood up from the prairie floor," nor images more poignant than "the crystal ball, always bright before, is gray as the dust of desire."

In my interview with her, Tracy Grammer made the following statement in a discussion of how it was decided who would sing what songs: "The choice of a voice for a particular song depended on which manifestation of our Narrator we wished to present." I love this way of thinking - that somehow the disparate songs of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, from the tough-guy cowboy songs to the sweetly sad love songs, from Buddhist meditations to love songs to Jesus, are all unmistakably from one voice. This is not the persona-donning character sketch folk of Richard Shindell, nor the storytelling folk of Woody Guthrie, nor the confessionalism of Dar Williams. This is something else - music that does not so much reach into the deep well of the mythic as tap it, allowing it to gush forth into the world.

So here's one myth. Dave Carter was born in 1952 to a profoundly devout evangelical Christian mother - a childhood that exposed him to the charismatic Christian tradition, a tradition that any coherent ethical or aesthetic judgment on would be too complex even for the Nintendo Project. He moved about the world in an almost classically bohemian fashion, with a series of experiences that read like they fell out of a Jack Kerouac novel - studies in mathematics, transpersonal psychology, computer programming, and music in amongst bouts of country singing, psychedelic rock, film scores, and kids music, and the occasional hitchhiking trip across the country.

Eventually, in 1998, he met Tracy Grammer. The nature of their relationship was clearly as complex as it was intense. The party line on the incessant questions of romantic entanglement was that they were "partners in all things," a statement Grammer later quietly clarified to confirm that romance was, in fact, a subset of all things.

There are two ways to look at the next (and last) four years of Dave Carter's life. In one, it was Tracy Grammer that provide the unique final ingredient that allowed Carter's genius to break through into the world and allowed him to become the major figure he deserved to be. In another, more akin to that proposed by Grammer, it was a matter of zeitgeist: "what was it about the year 1998 that made our world suddenly receptive to the work of Dave Carter?"

Regardless, the next four years were stunning. "When I Go," their first album together, is uneven, but its highlights are jaw-dropping. It is its first track, however, that is both the stand-out track and one of the most chilling recordings ever made. The song has characteristic Carterian mystery - what exactly is meant by "when I go" is not clear, but there is something intensely, fatally final about it - something that would lead to "diamond tears" on the part of whomever the song is sung to. The clearest implication is death, as the last verse refers to glimpses of "my wandering form out on the borderline between death and resurrection and the council of the pines." But what a death it is: "And when the sun comes trumpets from his red house in the east, he will find a standing stone where long I chanted my release, he will send his morning messenger to strike the hammer blow, and I will crumble down uncountable in showers of crimson rubies when I go."

Two albums followed - Tanglewood Tree and Drum Hat Buddha, each one better than the preceding one. Tanglewood Tree's first three tracks are better than the whole careers of most musicians, and Drum Hat Buddha is the rare album that may well avoid having a single clunker of a track. With Drum Hat Buddha, Carter and Grammer found themselves on the cusp of folk stardom, a minor sort of fame, but a real one nevertheless. They toured with Joan Baez, who later called Carter with the news that she'd played one of his songs, The Mountain, for the Dalai Lama. "He liked it," she happily reported.

Hold this part of the story. Linger here for a time. The growing success, the clarity that something is happening, that art and magic are occurring, together, inseparable. Imagine the two of them, equal partners, strapped into the tour van, loner Buddhist magician bards wielding a raw mythic power. I asked Tracy Grammer about the seeming contrast between Buddhist serenity and the tough-guy lonerism of country music. Her answer, in part, was "But don't be fooled. We were tough guys in our heads, and we were loners too. Especially in the van, traveling the long roads between gigs. But we were other things too. Buddhas. Babies. Sinners. Saints. Just like everybody is."

Stay there, because the alternative is Hadley. She has written and recorded exactly one song since Carter's death (although she has recorded versions of several unrecorded Carter songs and other covers). That song, The Verdant Mile, is one of the most heartbreaking recordings I have ever heard. Beginning with the plaintive "I didn't want to burn like this, so close to the bone, with no muscle left to carry it, this black bag of stones," the song reaches its crescendo in its third verse. "I miss you like I love the sound of blackbirds in the trees. I sit alone and wish that maybe one of you would visit me. But no matter how much seed I throw, what prayer I call out, I cannot bring a bird in from the field or make an angel come around." I have heard her speak, at concerts, of her pain at the fact that Carter really is gone - that he has not haunted her, but has moved on, has ascended. She does not speak of him as being dead in the atheistic no afterlife sense, but rather as having finally merged with the deep consciousness he could reach so far into.

But her pain is palpable. There is perhaps no way I can express the raw anguish of her talking about his death, save for linking to her words. And perhaps quoting a small segment: "Many are the moments when I see his dying face before me, replayed like a bad sample inside a warped beat, again and again and frustratingly again. You don't forget things like that, dying faces and last words. You don't forget the stupid things you said, those things which neither soothed nor saved him; you don't forget your idiotic optimism when you misread signs of life and death, mistook a deep last reflex breath for a return to life."

I hope she is doing better. I did not have the courage to ask when interviewing her. She, who brought the missing piece to Dave Carter's musical career, who gave him four years streaking across the sky, burning more brightly than imaginable, who has done so much. She is as entitled to her pain as she is to the joy she so evidently deserves.

And then there's me. Somehow cursed with being the missing link here, the authorial presence who has to bring all of these strands down to a coherent message. These people with their mythic lives, these video games, these ideas, all, through some pointless quirk of a blogging window, are my responsibility. It’s not fair or appropriate. I shouldn’t be the one telling this story. But I can’t not. It’s here, to be told. A flash of beauty arcing from heaven to Hadley, or, perhaps, the reverse.

My story started just under 20 years before Carter's death, half an hour away, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Nine minutes up the road from Hadley is Amherst Chinese Food, a fantastic Chinese restaurant that was my parents' favorite while they went to graduate school there. When my mother was in the hospital having given birth to me, Mr. Chang, the proprietor, tried to bring food to her room. My parents eventually had to make the rule that if you ate at Mr. Chang's for lunch and dinner one day, and then lunch and dinner the next day, you had to go somewhere else for lunch on the third day. But you could go again for dinner.

It was half an hour south of Hadley that I discovered video games, in 1984, on the Commodore 64. It was there that I sucked breath through cleft lip and palate, developed inexorably towards what I was. It was Chicago, on the other hand, where I discovered Dave Carter. Actually, I know I listened to "Gentle Arms of Eden" first in the basement of my parents' house in Newtown, Connecticut. That would have been Christmas, probably of 2001. But it wasn't until the fall of 2003 that I bought an album. Then, very quickly, all the others. When Tracy Grammer released Flower of Avalon, her solo album consisting primarily of versions of unrecorded Dave Carter songs, in 2005, I was already an avid fan.
Shortly thereafter, I moved to Florida. There, I saw Grammer in concert for the first time, in a little cafe on the coast of St. Augustine, Florida. I had already briefly corresponded with her over some edits to Wikipedia she made, in which she revealed some striking new information about Dave Carter, but did so on the Wikipedia page itself, falling afoul of policies on original research. After verifying her identity, I did what I could to help her out, which turned out not to be much.

There are other intersections. A stray black dog, escaped from an owner who had gotten him at a shelter, came into my life. I hated dogs, but somehow this furball was different. It was clear we needed each other. The previous owner didn’t disagree. Previously named Davey, I renamed him Krypto. Some time thereafter, I remembered a stray mention in the liner notes of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer's 2007 Christmas album that mentioned that an old black dog mentioned in one song was likely an avatar of Carter himself. Nothing. A steam of irrelevant coincidence. The thought has never quite left me. Like most thoughts about Dave Carter.

And then, a month or two ago now, I fired up Cowboy World to write a blog entry, and somehow, in amidst the digital bleeps, thought of Dave Carter. And had the idea for this entry. A three-stranded braid, wedding the strangely barren mythos of the game with the life and work of Dave Carter and my own experiences with that work.

Looking at it, what stands out is the sense of loneliness. That's barely surprising. Video games, in the NES era, were primarily one-player experiences. The cowboy myth is about loners. Loners are lonely. That's pretty axiomatic. But somewhere, out on abandoned plains, in the flickering headlights of a touring van, the banal wreckage of video games and American mythology sputters into life. You already know this. To hear one of Dave Carter's songs is just to confirm it. This is the best evidence of how he plumbs a mythic deep consciousness, whether you set it up in a Jungian-Campbellian model, or in the far more postmodern model that I think Carter ultimately does.

It is a model where the acceptance of multiple truths is not tantamount to the abandonment of the idea of truth. Where to speak, or, in their case, to sing, is not to proclaim but to perform. To embody an aspect of a larger narrator, and describe one facet of a thing. If we treat ideas as existent abstractions - if we treat, for instance, a number, or, for that matter, a myth as something that exists in some form other than the wetware of the human brain - then we are forced to contend with the fact that any idea that has ever been had is theoretically understandable in any human brain. That is, our ideas, memories, thoughts, and dreams - those things that make us up as individuals - are in a fundamental sense non-unique. Dave Carter's gift is... was... his ability to reach into that place just outside what the mind has thought of - that morass of thoughts that are conceivable but unthought. His ability to make a song that spoke from just past the realm of human experience, pulling us deeper into that undertow of mystery that underlies thought and speech

There is nobody who walks those plains who is not a loner. The shamanic path is necessarily one for those who transgress. There is irony here, given that Dave Carter understood better than anyone the way in which people are linked, that he could find something to admire in any religion, and at times wished he were a member of all of them.

Thought of this way, Tracy Grammer's posthumous revelation that Carter was pursuing a gender change should be unsurprising. A sad fact of our culture is that it never is. These are stories that don't get told. And a lot of them have far worse endings than Hadley.
I have the blessing of knowing some. The one I know best is that of my dear friend Anna, a truly beautiful woman I met in North Carolina. Smart, funny, insightful, and, as she goes through her transition, all I can think of are, unsurprisingly, the words of Dave Carter: "May you bloom bright and fierce."

Carter began hormone treatments a few months before he died. (I use the male pronoun because, at the time of his death, he was still presenting publicly as male, and because it is the pronoun Tracy Grammer still uses for him. Absent his voice, I defer to hers.) It was difficult for Grammer - they separated their living arrangements. But they were still partners in all things.

Grammer observed, and she's right, that his songwriting over the years with her shifted from songs about the ambiguities and difficulties of masculinity to a more... mournful, quiet approach. Where their first two albums brim with a sort of furious mythic fire, by Drum Hat Buddha his songs had shifted to, in Grammer's words, songs that "explore the frailties and failings of the human heart, the inability of one man to commit to one woman, the loneliness of AIDS, and spiritual relationships with either the goddess or Jesus." Perhaps unsurprisingly, these songs increasingly got given to Grammer to sing, and Carter spoke of his long-term plans to have her do all the singing.

The last album they were working on, a re-recording of some of Carter's songs from a solo album before he met Grammer, bucks this trend, but listening to it feels far more like a loving farewell to a part of Carter's life than anything. An album by someone with one foot out the door of the life he was living.

It's just that nobody knew what that would mean. Talking to Grammer, I learned that the last song Carter finished was "Phantom Doll," a song recorded by Grammer on Flower of Avalon. The song is, on the most simple level, about body image - a character who wishes to be seen as the woman she views herself as. "Raggedy Ann came out to play, kittened a thin disguise against the day." But, in characteristic Carter fashion, the song has a turn - first singing of how "in glorious dreams she walks outside her skin," but finally, in the last verse, making a turn. "Raggedy Andy wrote this song, scribbled it here where oceans meet the dawn." And we see, perhaps, the story that never got to be told.

Instead, on a hotel room floor, held by the woman he loved, Dave Carter collapsed of a massive heart attack after a morning run. I will, again, let her speak.
"Yesterday, shortly after he went unconscious, he came back for a lucid minute or two to tell me, 'I just died... Baby, I just died...' There was a look of wonder in his eyes, and though I cried and tried to deny it to him, I knew he was right and he was on his way. He stayed with me a minute more but despite my attempts to keep him with me, I could see he was already riding that thin chiffon wave between here and gone. He loved beauty, he was hopelessly drawn to the magic and the light in all things. I figure he saw something he could not resist out of the corner of his eye and flew into it. Despite the fact that every rescue attempt was made by paramedics and hospital staff and the death pronouncement officially came at 12:08 pm Eastern Time, I believe he died in my arms in our favorite hotel, leaving me with those final words. That's the true story I am going to tell."

And so, a little more than a year later, I found the strand of story. The story of a brilliant man who roamed the country singing songs that were magic. Who saw what others didn't, and knew that they could see it, and that he could show them.

And he did.

By this merit, may all beings become myth.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

First Principles (Destination: Earthstar and Destiny of an Emperor)

The essential tension between culture and identity can be oversimplified thusly: Culture is the general case, and identity is the specific case. Culturally, I belong to the so-called Nintendo Generation, defined by its intersection with a relatively narrow subset of games. Individually, however, I am defined, even in video gaming terms, by idiosyncratic focus both within and without that subset. For instance, The Adventures of Lolo, a game pretty solidly outside the canon of classic NES games, has had an outsized impact on my life compared to, say, Excitebike, a classic NES game that I cannot have played more than 15 minutes of.

The two games for today, Destination: Earthstar and Destiny of an Emperor, are not games I had played before. Both, however, are pretty good games, assuming you're someone other than me. I have in the past asked, mostly as a rhetorical question, what sort of person I might be if a different set of games had intersected with my life. These games seem as good an opportunity as any to ask this question in more detail.

Destination: Earthstar is a space flight sim game. For my part, I only got into three games of this genre in my life - Wing Commander III, IV, and Prophecy. And Wing Commander: Prophecy was crap. And for that matter, I played WC3 mostly with invincibility mode on.

Space flight sims, for me, have one significant advantage over ground-based flight sims, which is that it is a lot harder to crash your craft into the ground and die a horrible death. This is not enough to overcome the fact that I just don't like the genre that much.

The genre is based on the understanding and navigation of three-dimensional space. Interestingly, this is not something video games focus heavily on. Even modern games tend not to get too wrapped up in the dynamics of the third dimension, often restraining themselves to hallways and courtyards so that one rarely has to deal meaningfully with more than two dimensions. One can even go to a game like Super Mario Galaxy - a game primarily about running around on three-dimensional objects, and find far more levels that feel 2 and 2.5 dimensional than three dimensional.

Part of this is that the third dimension is actually kind of tricky. We don't think about it all that often. This may seem like an odd claim given that we live in it, but the fact of the matter is that we rely pretty heavily on gravity to simplify things for us. Most of our life is spent moving around on what's basically a 2-D plane. Thinking beyond that is hard for a lot of people. For instance, think of a two-story house you've spent a fair amount of time in. Think of the living room in it. What room is directly above it? What part of the basement, if any, is directly below it? This is, for most people, a fairly hard question. (My parents' bedroom, for what it's worth)

Flight sims in space involve moving through what is often an arbitrarily large region of three dimensional space, in which you have completely free motion except for the fact that you're bound heavily by physics, momentum, and direction. And, generally speaking, being shot at. This, combined with the fact that flight simulators are generally for the mildly obsessive, makes them an odd combination. Part of this is one of those moments where narrative and gameplay intersect. In order to explain why you are fighting in space, you need to posit a military to do the fighting.

Military fetishism depends on a valuation of arbitrary rules and structures. The military, when fetishized as a narrative device, becomes about the baroque structure of regulation-based ethics and procedures. Accordingly, piloting a space ship in a militaristic game involves a lot of persnickety focus on fuel, physics, maneuvering, and the like. This is very different from the fantasy of flight. But it's a coherent subgenre. Star Trek uses it slightly, but its real major appearance - probably the zenith of the subgenre - was Battlestar Galactica.

I adore BSG, but the larger culture eludes me. Battlestar Galactica appeals to me precisely because it's a terminus of that aesthetic. There is no glory left in the military in BSG. It consists of hollow rituals preserved in the name of a doomed effort to preserve the larger society. Its leaders are screwed up, often wrong, and never clearly and definitively right. It takes the space military aesthetic to its endpoint, and scares us with what it finds.

But it is only able to function because of things like Star Trek, Wing Commander, and, yes, Destination: Earthstar - things that establish the space military tropes that it deconstructs. These were never part of my identity - a vague trajectory in the larger culture I was aware of, but placed no value in. And looking at it, I feel a revulsion. The arbitrary structures of authority, fetishization of violence, and fact that the games are of the category that want me to spend an awful lot of effort to have fun are all counter to what I want out of my entertainment. And more to the point, this genre, aside from just not being fun, leaves me with a strong sense that the genre itself is morally bankrupt, privileging as it does acquiescence to arbitrary authority.

But this is where things get tricky. I know I didn't think of things in these terms growing up. I didn't focus on military space sci-fi because I didn't like it. I did focus on Borges and Doctor Who and comics because I did like them. There was no great mystery or secret. It was just a series of decisions I made that happened, over time, to add up to an identity. Which is a tough thing to say, because I believe firmly in aesthetic philosophy, in the fundamental link between ethics and aesthetics, and even in the fact that there is such a thing as a correct judgment of taste. I told my class the other day that Arthur Miller is a bad playwright - a statement I stand by as a matter of declarative fact.

On the surface of it, these two things are contradictory. How can I believe in the fundamental validity of an aesthetic philosophy whose rational basis is a back formation of an essentially arbitrary set of choices?

Unless, of course, the means by which a position is developed is irrelevant to its validity...

Destiny of an Emperor is one of the earliest Japanese RPGs to make it in the US. Japanese RPGs have, in the 20 years since the game came out, risen and, if not fallen, at least meandered in a vaguely downwards direction. Here, again, some history is in order. The RPG video game has a bit of a forked history. Actually, the RPG video game and the video game were almost, but not quite, completely indistinguishable for at least some of their history. There is a simple reason for this - video games and D&D developed simultaneously and in more or less the exact same Tolkien-obsessed subculture. (Jack Chick, if he knew this, would no doubt either take his website down or be an obnoxious hypocrite)

The result is that there is an unusually long history of RPG games. In America. A tradition based on, mostly, open-ended gameplay and the ruthless development of character stats. But many moons ago, by which I mean 1986, a Japanese programming team created Dragon Quest, a knockoff of American RPGs. That was a smash success, and led to a Japanese style of RPGs. The two styles were mostly distinct, with only occasional games jumping over, of which only Final Fantasy was an absolutely massive deal. And even that had only half of its games released in the US.

Destiny of an Emperor is one of those oddball games that made it out in the US. Adequate and playable. Characteristically of JRPGs, the focus is more on a small party and defined plot. Those that argue that video games are a viable narrative form usually point to these games, because they tend to have the most ornate and thorough plots of video games. That these plots are still overly simplistic stories that are written to include as many action sequences as possible, and that the gameplay on JRPGs usually aspires to mere mediocrity.

While Destination: Earthstar, looked at in hindsight, fills me with, if not dread, a strong sense that I object, Destiny of an Emperor elicits from me a sort of appreciative nod, an acknowledgment of the secret history it represents. I never got into Japanese culture. It was a shift in geek culture I missed - resisted initially out of nothing so much as a mild sense of laziness, and by the time I got around to realizing I was on the wrong side of a culture shift, the gap that had opened up was one I never felt like I could confidently bridge.

Amusingly, I suspect strongly from talking to those who are big on Japanese culture that the gap is one I could bridge without excessive work. This is mostly because the things that seem to me utterly alienating about the gap - figuring out the basic structure of Japanese narratology, for instance - are not actually things that many people on the other side of the gap have done. The depressing fact is that a staggering amount of the fetishization of Japanese culture is seemingly done without any particular investment in a systematic understanding of the fetishized object. (See also every mass ideology ever)

My larger point here is that, by all appearances, doing so would be worthwhile. And there are numerous cases of this. Secret histories deserving of uncovering, in amidst the dead ends and traps I evaded - secret histories I view as lesser. The nature of defining history in cultural terms is that this sorting is productive. Secret histories can be uncovered and excavated. The process is not the same as experiencing them. Nor is it empty.

But what is still a fundamental issue - one too complex for me to disentangle at this stage - is how I am doing this sorting. Some system must exist for me to be able to judge the worth of knowledge yet to be learned. Somehow, I am capable of choosing between militarism and Japanese narratology. How? And what standards or rigors can this judgment be held up to?