Friday, February 25, 2011

At Least Loki Did It On Purpose (Faria)

Anna is the living embodiment of the kids show cliche of the girl who's smarter and better than all the boys. Except unlike that cliche, she doesn't spend all her time being kidnapped. Instead, she writes Bunches of Text and spends most of her time being a sort of sun for pure awesomeness. Seriously. All other cool things in the universe just sort of quietly spin around her in perfect harmony. 

She also wrote the post below, because when I sat down to write it I realized that I'd write the exact same post she would, only not nearly as well. So enjoy Anna. I certainly always do.

Video games are full of heterosexism, cissexism, and plain old no-prefix sexism. This is not a condemnation of video games; nearly every artifact our society produces contains at least one of these things, and doubly so for artifacts created for a male* audience. It is, however, a problem for a pansexual, transgender girl who likes video games.

Video games, especially in the NES era, are inextricably linked with Japan. Of course, thanks to localization, the Japan we see reflected in video games does not exist (this has been discussed here before). Nevertheless, video games, anime, and manga have been the chief components of this ephemeral Japan, and that phantom country has had a profound impact on my life.

Faria: A World of Mystery & Danger! was released in the US in 1990. I must stop here and confess something: I am not part of the NES. I am a hair too young for the NES to really be called the defining console of my youth. Certainly, the NES was the first console I remember playing games on, but I was only 7 when the SNES debuted. My personal psychochronography would have to be 16-bit. That said, certain NES games, notably Dragon Warrior, are integral to my historical sense of self.

The gameplay in Faria is charming, but shallow. It feels like a blend of The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy, and the graphics, especially the terrain in overland battles and the portraits used when conversing with NPCs, are a pleasure to look at. But the equipment system is awkward (there is nothing to indicate what makes one weapon better or different from another) and a number of small annoyances hamper playability. All of this, however, is incidental. The real problem is that Faria is deadly.

1990 was also the year that I first noticed that there was a discrepancy between my perception of myself and everyone else's perception of me. It would be a long time before I had words to describe it, and a lot longer before I could come to terms with it, but effectively, 1990 was the year that my gender identity solidified enough for me to realize I was transgender.

Words are tricky things. There is a vast space between signifier and signified, a Ginnungagap filled not with Ymir's remains, but with cultural context. The result is that signifiers are often crude, blunt instruments. They are difficult to use with precision. Take the word 'transgender'. It clubs the hearer with stereotypes and connotation. I, on the other hand, desire precision from my language. The meaning I want the word to have is very clearly defined: someone whose gender identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth. In that sense, whether the Soldier in Faria is transgender is uncertain, because we know nothing about his inner conceptualization of himself. However, one thing we do know about the Soldier is that he undergoes gender transition.

At the beginning of Faria, it appears that the protagonist is an early example of a female lead in a video game. The Soldier appears female, and the game gives us no hint to dissuade us from that truth. The Soldier is not overly sexualized or objectified, and is clearly the most capable hero in town. A little bit of heteronormativity creeps in when the king declares that the Soldier and the Princess cannot marry because they are both girls. However, near the end of the game, it is revealed, out of the proverbial blue, that he was actually transformed into a woman, along with all of the men in his kingdom, by the evil wizard who serves as the game's antagonist. At the very least, this plot twist reeks of sexism (because obviously, a woman couldn't possibly be a hero), but more significantly, it is gender-transition-as-spectacle.

Here we have the theme of gender transition, established near the end of the story but implicitly present throughout. And where we have gender transition, the idea of transsexuality inevitably follows. They are two signifying hammers tied together. And here, the theme is not handled well. It feels as though the writer is reaching for a plot twist that will shock the player, and this is clearly the most shocking thing he could come up with. It is at least cisnormative if not outright cissexist.

Unfortunately, handling gender issues sloppily is a trend that would continue uninterrupted in Japanese media (that made it across the ocean, at least) for twenty years**. The nineties gave us anime like El Hazard and Pokemon, both of which employ crossdressing for situational humor. In 2001 we got Cowboy Bebop, which notably employed an intersex condition for gratuitous fan-service (Gren), and also used trans woman stereotypes for shock comedy (Knockin' on Heaven's Door). Even Ranma uses gender transformation as a situational gag, although it tries to couch it in a quirky, light-hearted narrative. In video games, we have Final Fantasy VII's "dress like a girl to sneak into the creepy sex-fiend's house".

As a young trans girl who loved both anime and video games, and who consumed most of the above anime at one time or another (and knew about the trans themes in the rest at least peripherally), this painted a clear picture. In bold and certain strokes, it showed me a landscape in which it was clear that to try and assert a gender other than the one society fitted you with was to invite ridicule. To be a punchline, not worth taking seriously.

This was not a false landscape, I reasoned. After all, what territory does our media map if not society? And looking at that map, I despaired of ever navigating the territory. Released as it was at the dawn of my own gender identity, Faria is the forerunner to all of the memes I encountered over the next two decades, memes that convinced me it would be more painful to transition than to keep pretending. And that would lead to a deepening depression throughout my teenage years and into college. To frequent thoughts of suicide. To one attempt at it.

Faria's secret history, then, is that it nearly killed me. True, its attempt at gender transgressiveness is far less problematic than the things that came after it, but it paved the way for them. It helped to establish the precedent in Japanese media, which made its way to me and formed my own set of connotations about transsexuality. I never played Faria, but it played me and won.

I want Faria to be better than it is. I will write for it a secret story to replace our secret history.

The Boy loved the Princess the first time he saw her. Though he was just a common boy, he vowed to meet her again, and ask if she shared his feelings.

The Boy grew into a Soldier. He practiced and sweated, trained and trained. This was not easy; his body tried to betray him. His movements always felt clumsy, and he was constantly misjudging the shape of his own body. He despised his body, which insisted on growing in ways that felt unnatural to him.

The army refused to admit him until he bound his chest and cut his hair, thereby fooling their foolish standards.

When the Soldier heard the Princess had been kidnapped, he knew his chance had come at last. He raced to her rescue. He fought past monsters and found her atop a high tower. As it happened, she did share his feelings.

The King, however, was another story. He held the Soldier up to the same foolish standard as the army. The Soldier, dejected, offered his service to the King. At least he could stay close to the Princess. Soon after, the King was turned to stone by an evil Wizard.

Being an honorable man, the Soldier sought the Wizard. He found him, disguised as the very Princess he thought he had saved. The Soldier fought the Wizard, and wrested his power away. The Soldier took the Wizard's power and healed the King. Then, he healed himself, reversed the cruel betrayal of his body, and went to find his Princess.

* I use 'male' and 'female' as the adjective forms of 'man' and 'woman' respectively, and not in the biologically essentialist sense. I don't intend 'male' and 'female' to have any definition independent of serving as adjective forms of 'man' and 'woman', and would eliminate them from my vocabulary entirely if we had non-awkward adjective forms for these words.

** In January 2011, the anime Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son) premiered on Japanese television and simultaneously, with subtitles, on This anime has done a lot to prove that it is possible to tell a story about gender identity without resorting to stereotypes and spectacle.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Feudalism (Family Feud)

My wife left me.

If this were a very good and under-appreciated sitcom about divorce, I'd have a pithy follow-up to that. Instead, it's vaguely real-life, so the punchline to that one was my father having a massive stroke.


Family, much like video games, is somewhat Heideggarian. We do not notice the contours of our family until it is absent. That is not to say that I did not love my family growing up. Far from it. But just as one does not fully understand playing a video game until one loses, you do not understand what it is to love family until they are absent.

This is the first secret history, the original forbidden knowledge. Not sex or death or the one-up mushroom after the fourth pipe, but the unknowable land beyond the front doorstep of our own homes. As we've said, a territory is defined by its boundaries. Until we have traversed the boundaries of it, we cannot know the territory. The map may not (always) be the territory, but until there is a map, there is no territory.

And so it was impossible for me to know the answers to the survey "Things I Want Out Of My Family Life" until I went crashing out of large portions of it. There was absolutely no way for me to know the nature of marriage without being strikingly betrayed by the person I trusted most in the world and realizing that the woman I had been in love with was a lie that bordered on malicious. There was no way for me to understand my childhood until the ability to ask my father a hard question was taken away. There was no way to know how much I wanted kids before it was clear that having them was going to be very, very difficult.

This irony is the essential dynamic behind Family Feud. See, without the harsh realization that the territorial boundary of the front door is far more fragile than you'd hoped, one's family is a sort of Rechtsstaat. Within its unknowable boundaries is an odd but distinct culture, ineffably distinguishable from the house next door. But in Family Feud one must play as a family unit - as one's own private nation state - in a game of discerning the intentions and whims of the Other.

So, for instance, when I am asked for desserts served for guests, I failed to name custard because I have literally never had custard served at any family function in my life. And this idiosyncrasy on my part is the entire point of Family Feud. The entire challenge of the game comes from the disjunct between private experience and the public experience. But notably, this is not a disjoint between the individual and society, but between the family unit and society. This is the genius of the show - that one plays not as an individual assessing broad social trends, but as a family.

There is a deeply creepy and disturbing element to this that should be admitted to. In effect, Family Feud is a competition towards normativity. The more in line with the tastes of ordinary families you are, the better you will do at Family Feud. That all of this is packaged up with a classic specimen of the smarmy game show host who, in the NES version in question, creepily kisses each member of the family, complete with little heel-kick, makes it, frankly, all the worse.

But let's pause for a moment and do our characteristic close analysis of a seemingly trivial detail about the game that will, once I finish over-analyzing it, will suddenly prove to be absolutely key not only to understanding the game but the whole of my childhood, identity, and, if this is a particularly good entry, the universe. In this case, let's go for the old chestnut - the title. Family Feud. In this title, who or what, exactly, is feuding, and with what?

The temptation is to suggest that the feud exists between two families - a re-enactment of the entire notion of international relations in the early days of human history when humans were organized in family-based bands. And in one or two instances - most notably in the utterly classic Hatfield/McCoy episodes - this may have been the case. But by and large, the family feud is best understood as a matter of internal affairs. First of all, it is worth noting that an exceedingly small portion of the game is actually played as a head-to-head competition between the families, and even those are generally in fact a competition between two individuals in the family (generally defined in terms of their social role - fathers, sons, etc). By and large, gameplay, at any given moment, rests entirely with one family or the other.

But furthermore, at any given moment, the game is played on an individual level, with a single family member playing in isolation from the rest. Thus the balance of normativity in fact works on two levels. First the family as a whole is judged based on how normative they are. Second, each individual family member is judged not only based on how normative they are, but on how well their gameplay meshes with the gestalt of the family. In other words, one must simultaneously display fealty to the default American consensus and to the idiosyncratic consensus of one's family, who implicitly judges each individual player's performance on the basis of how well it represents the family's private ideal.

The feud, then, is in fact with one's own family - a feud to define the family as distinctly identifiable and generic simultaneously and on an individual-by-individual basis despite the fact that the family is a composite entity. In other words, Family Feud is a crucible in which a given bloodline is forced to confront the territorial boundary that defines them as a family unit distinct from the broader society while simultaneously defining them as the basic component unit of that society - the one that, historically, the entire concept of society was built up from.

But what do we make of this activity when it is done outside of the family unit? As is the case, for instance, when one plays Family Feud as a Nintendo game instead of as a television game show. It is tempting to make an analogy to the old canard that sex is just masturbation with another person, but honestly, that goes to a place a bit pervy even for my massively debased tastes. But there is a matter of truth to it. After all, the NES, especially in it's actual heyday, is a profoundly domestic machine.

The reason for this comes down to furniture, and is best compared to the other major video game technology of the era, the personal computer. The personal computer is by it's nature an individual pursuit. At the time, it was basically synonymous with the desktop, which tells you most of what you need to know, really. The desk is an individual piece of furniture tied in with the old image of the solitary scholar or writer. Adding a computer to a desk does not meaningfully change this. And so the video game played on the computer is a solitary pursuit undertaken within a space that is idiosyncratically defined by the individual. Even if one's family, unlike mine, only had one family computer, the computer and desk are still the province of whomever is sitting in the individual chair.

Compare this with the television, around which entire rooms are built. The television is want to be viewed at a distance. This creates lines of sight that determine the geography of the entire room. Television is further consumed, typically, not from individual furniture such as chairs, but from communal furniture such as sofas. And so the NES, which is hooked up to a television, ingrains itself into the entire fabric of the house and thus into the family structure.

One always played the NES, in other words, as a representative of the family unit in which it existed. Making, in an odd way, Family Feud a microcosm of the basic dynamic of the system. But let's be more specific. Family Feud, on the NES, requires that the player, in effect, create a family. This family is specific - each family member has a distinct sprite. But it is not personalized. You do not pick your family sprites, and thus there is no meaningful relationship between them and your actual family. You have no obvious avatar in the family.

In other words playing Family Feud on the NES is not a matter of representing one's actual family, but of re-enacting it - of making a family. But here the creepy homogenizing ideology of the game becomes most unfortunate. Although the game is fundamentally a crossing of the threshold and establishing of the boundary between one's Rechtsstaat and the world, the nature of creating a family in pursuit of the generic is the exact opposite of the processes by which one actually discovers and creates family.

And yet there is an odd familiarity to it, as a divorcee. I had a sense of family. I knew who I was going to have and raise children with. I knew who my wife was - who it was I loved and would come home to every night. But I was wrong. My wife was as illusory as the sprites constituting my other fictional family. The woman I loved, the woman I married, and the woman who left me were not the same person. And the one who was left standing was, shall we say, not my first choice. Whatever family I mourned in the aftermath of that was, in the end, as much my own invention as my Family Feudal avatars.

And it is hard to call this unusual. The difference, in the end, between memory and fiction is a narrow one, and once one has stepped out the front door, it is never entirely clear which one was left behind.  

Monday, February 21, 2011

Fly The Abstracted Skies (F-15 Eagle Strike, F-117A Stealth Fighter)

Any intelligent approach to medial constraints treats those constraints not as limitations but as defining the space in which communication takes place. Painting is only possible when the amorphousness of real space is framed and delineated as a canvas - that is, when some initial constraint is offered to define a communication as existing. Likewise, it is difficult to seriously treat a sonnet a being in some way limited or held back by having fourteen lines. The rules of a sonnet are not there to restrict what can be said, but rather to define a mode of communication - to create something called a "sonnet" that is a particular type of communication.

In other words, constraint is largely positive. Just as a chef who picks up a beef tenderloin is not snubbing chicken but rather celebrating beef, to write in a constrained form is not to snub that which can be said outside the form, but rather to celebrate what the form can say.

I mention this because I am writing the bulk of this entry on an airplane in Pages on my iPad. At the time of writing, it is 1pm on Wednesday, February 16th. I mention this because this is actually the blog entry for Monday the 21st. The entries for the last week or so have been written in advance on both this blog and TARDIS Eruditorum because I am, or at least will be when this posts, on vacation visiting friends in Florida. This is the last entry I have to write, as I head back on what is, for you, tomorrow, and wrote that entry last night because TARDIS Eruditorum is, generally speaking, an easier blog to write than this one.

The airplane provides constraints. Typing on the iPad is not unpleasant, but it is slower and less accurate than a proper keyboard, and autocorrect occasionally imposes itself unfortunately. I fix those errors when i see them, but on the other hand it is entirely possible that errors i would catch in a proper blog entry will sneak through. Already I see that capitalization on the first person singular is a bit dodgy. So are writing things after a period, i.e. Here, where it capitalizes automatically.

More importantly, I do not have immediate access to either the games being talked about or the Internet. This means that any knowledge or facts presented in this entry must be retrieved from my memory or fabricated wholesale. These facts alter how I can and will write the entry.

What is an airplane? As with any word, there is a choice to be made in defining it. Do we treat the word as correlating to an actual thing - perhaps the silver piece of metal and plastic currently conveying me to Atlanta, or do we treat it as a broad field of implications?

For instance, the airplane signifies the shift in capitalism where global exchange of service goods was essentially trivialized. It signifies the point where space became wholly interchangeable - where there was no longer any inherent reason why LA had to be different from New York or, for that matter, Tulsa or Richmond or anywhere else. More recently, it has signified terrorism - the airplane is, since 9/11, the assumed scene of the terrorist attack. But that was almost a decade ago, and our fetishization of that fear has instead faded to another signifier whereby the airplane is the scene of maddening bureaucracy. The most pressing scene of this is the security line, a strange place where humor is forbidden and all people must follow a visibly arbitrary set of rules to be allowed to pass, including surrendering all their possessions and (partially) disrobing so as to fully shed identity.

Does the word airplane communicate all of this? Yes. Clearly. As well as historical meanings - an airplane has particular meaning, for instance, in Britain where the RAF hold massive responsibility for enduring the German blitz and saving the country. That meaning is valorous, yes, but one cannot forget that it was also planes that dropped the bombs on London. "Airplane" is a constraint that encloses this whole field of meanings.

The more interesting question is whether the silver machine enveloping me signifies all of this. Does the air vent cooling my face contain the pools of burning phosphorous lining the bombed out streets of London? Is the blinding mushroom flash rising behind the Enola Gay in my reading light? Is the woman across the aisle Amelia Earhart, Orville Wright, and Mohammed Atta? Does the wreckage of TWA 800 rain down on the vista out my window?

If so, then surely the image of a plane in F-15 Eagle Strike does as well. The NES port of a classic computer flight simulator, the game is almost the textbook definition of a niche game. The flight simulator is a bizarre genre where it is viably argued that complexity and realism are actually superior to playability. This happens in niche games - the existence of, say, Nethack shows that clearly enough. Catering as they do to a defined audience of people who are big fans of a particular type of game and thus very good at that type, the niche game forces odd innovation on game designers. The value of gameplay innovations is considerably lower - reinventing the wheel is not a way to cater to an audience of die-hards. Instead what is valuable is challenge, interesting variations on existing paradigms, and complexity.

One result of this is that the niche game is oddly specific. You can see this in the title - the game is not a flight simulator game, it is a simulation of one very specific type of plain. Thus F-117A Stealth Fighter, even though it is from the same company and has very similar gameplay, is actually not considered part of the same series as F-15 Eagle Strike. The games are fundamentally different because they represent different aircraft. The fact that the aircraft are barely distinguishable in gameplay is immaterial - the signified shifts here regardless of the signifier.

In other words, the same flight simulating dynamics can signify two different airplanes. This is non-trivial. I know almost nothing about airplanes, but I am well aware that those that do are deeply invested in their differences. The difference from my perspective between the Canadair Regional Jet I am flying on and some other short-hop jet is basically immaterial. The livery of my plane is immaterial - I have no frequent flyer cards, and thus no real brand loyalty in my flights. But I know that there are people for whom the specific Canadair Regional Jet that I am on is not only clearly distinct from an Embraer, but distinct from a Canadair Regional Jet that is owned by a different airline.

The point of this is not some drab cliche about how different people see things differently. Rather, it is that the boundaries of the signifier are as contested as those of the signified. If the man in the seat in front of me is an airplane buff who knows the technical details of the CRJ900 then he is fundamentally on a different plane than I, for whom the plane is nothing more than a string of glyphs on the Safety Information card.

This is not entirely unique to airplanes, but they do have the effect in question to a rather higher degree than other things. The plane, after all, is the great disorienter. Fire up either of the flight sim games and you'll see what I mean - the challenge of a flight simulator is almost entirely the act of successfully situating yourself in three dimensional space and responding intelligently to the movement of other bodies in the same space. That is to say, the whole point of the games is to make you lose your bearings.

Likewise, when this flight lands I will step into an airline terminal distinguishable from the one I left only in which fast food logos are visible. And yet it will be Atlanta where before it was New York. Already, looking out the window, the snows of the northeast have given way. But I am nowhere. Cut off from communication with the world, at least for now, writing from a void in the past, between two identical different places and born aloft on a silver bird I cannot tell apart from another of its flock, I am unmoored. The airplane has made all places into each other, and now there is nowhere at all.

Below me, unnumbered clouds float by me, ambiguous menageries of imaginary beasts known to the unnamed children far below. Above the clouds, a contrail and the faint flash of airplane lights. Anyone could be down there. Anyone could be up here.

And yet that cloud looks like an Octorock. And these peanuts taste of Jimmy Carter. And with the push of a button, the screaming dead of Hiroshima may be returned to the darkness of the past. By the time you read this, I will be somebody. For now, I am content to be anybody.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Platonism in Two Acts (Evert & Lendl Top Player's Tennis and Excitebike)

Act 1.

The space is best understood as bowl-like. The contested object initially has an upward trajectory. The object grows as it sails upwards, but eventually meets with diminishing returns and scrolls off the top of the screen in the manner of an object being pushed out into the theater in a stereoscopic film. The plane this line is perpendicular to is drawn perspectivally, with a vanishing point that is, like the apex of the ball's arc, off the top of the screen.

The line intersecting the plane perpendicularly is a restaging of the player's position in relation to the television, the television providing the plane and the player's line of sight providing the line. Thus the game presents a mirroring of the eye/screen relationship that is angled approximately thirty degrees upward not only from the player, but from the frame in which it exists.

As the ball is both the contested object and the most mobile object, the scope of the space is defined primarily by its movements. These movements are complex, in that they rely on depth as defined by the serving axis. The ball does not, in the manner of vintage video games, simply move across the plane, but rather bounces along the plane, which is itself bisected by a net that, strangely, does not seem to be on the serve-axis as would be required by normal regulations in the sport.

The ball's motion, however, decimates any standard understanding of the space. Indeed, for the purposes of representation it is more sensible to treat the ball as two separate objects - the white circle and the black circle. Diegetically, the white circle is the physical yellow tennis ball while the black one is its shadow. In practice, however, they are two separate pieces of information that must be correlated in the player's mind. The black circle is what denotes the ball's position on the plane, whereas the white circle's size denotes its vertical height along the serve-axis. These two pieces of information can alter independently - the ball does not become larger when it is closer to the position of the implied viewer. Its size is determined entirely by its height along the serve-axis.

More should be made of the position of the implied viewer, as it gives a clearer sense of the shape of the virtual space. Because the intersection of serve-axis and playfield is angled so that the serve axis passes above the player's head, the player's position becomes analogous to that of a television camera. Thus the tennis court is experienced not from a player's perspective (where it is essentially a plane radiating out from the player) but from an audience perspective (where it is more akin to the bowl of an arena, the sides sloping up along the serve-axis). This is particularly interesting given that the game is marketed using the names of two tennis stars of the time, i.e. via celebrities who are thus defined in terms of distance from the player. The alienating effect of controlling the tennis player while being an audience member increases the sense of celebrity distance. Far from the cliche whereby video games are about becoming the avatar, in fact they are here better understood as being about consciously alienating the player from the avatar.

A final remark must be made about the avatar, who, due to the angling of the playfield, moves unusually. His left to right motions are clearly along the screen, but because he can rush the net as well, he has a second axis of motion that goes into the screen. The avatar is thus positioned in relation to the vanishing point, reiterating the fact that he is not properly an extension of the player, but in fact part of the game and converging inexorably towards his own disappearance.

Act 2.

There is an impossible curve. The track is clearly a circuit, as it is possible to perform multiple laps of it, but nowhere does it demonstrate any curvature. Furthermore, the four lanes appear to be of equal length, and there is no speed advantage to the inside lane. There is no way to account for this phenomenon in Euclidean space.

Instead it is easier to understand the game as experienced. The track is a plane. On the plane are obstacles - generally ramps. These ramps could be taken to add a vertical dimension to the game, but this is mostly illusory. Height implies a space above the track in which one moves. In practice, there is nothing "above" the track as such. Thus height is more accurately represented as a measure of time. Height only exists if one is in the midst of a jump and thus not in contact with the track. But the only relevant piece of information at that point is not how far above the track you are, but how long before one is in contact with the track. Any description of the bike's position along an assumed z-axis is purely speculative. (There is no kilogram.)

This then introduces a second plane into the game - the plane occupied by the bike itself. The only feature of this plane is, in fact, the bike. Thus a race can be understood as two planes that diverge (when the bike is "in the air") and converge ("landing") periodically. The relationship between these planes hinges on a correct understanding of the ramps. They are not, as they initially appear, objects with height as such. Rather, they represent anglings of the track-plane. That is, a ramp is a case where the track plane tilts "upwards."

I put "upwards" in scare quotes because it is still a mistake to think of the game as having a third dimension, although this is the regard in which it most simulates that. Certainly when the track-plane is angled "up" it crosses the bike-plane, but this is not relevant in the least in terms of the height. The entire issue can be accurately described by simply noting the angle at which the planes cross, treating the bike as the point of intersection. (Indeed, the most accurate description of the bike is in fact the intersection of the two planes - it has no other meaningful role in the game) It is true that the angle does directly affect time-to-landing, but this relationship is not sufficiently spatial to constitute "height."

The player deals with the track-plane's angling by "tilting the bike," again a misnomer, as in actuality what one is doing is angling the bike-plane to compensate for the track-plane. Failure to keep the planes optimally aligned results in deceleration and crashes. This, basically is the heart of the game.

From that understanding there are only a handful of minor variations. In fact there are four track-planes that can be separately understood, and the bike plane can alter which one it is intersecting at any given moment. That describes the lane system. There is also the Selection B option, which adds additional bikes to the track. These bikes do not, as they initially appear, exist on their own bike planes. Indeed, it is dubious whether they exist at all - certainly the track immediately acquires more bikes than the four that start on it, and it is unclear where these bikes come from. Thus they are better understood not as objects but as a sort of interference pattern stretching across the play-space defined by the intersecting bike-plane and track-plane.


Excitebike is a highly overrated game.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Their Toys (Elevator Action, Eliminator Boat Duel)

Because the video game is based, in the end, on the awkwardness of the controller, one of its standard set-pieces is to have an object being controlled within the narrative of the game. Because the video game system is, quite literally, a temperamental machine, using it to simulate control of a temperamental machine is a case of minimizing the friction between medium and content.

This tendency is a classic case of the genius of embracing constraint - a tendency that, in other media, leads to classic design. In an analogous experience, consider the MRI in House. Generally speaking, entering the MRI machine in Princeton Plainsboro Hospital is a disastrous experience. Why? Because an MRI is a fairly standard medical procedure, and thus tends to occur early in the episode, but due to the nature of television, diagnosis is only possible in the last five minutes of an episode. Accordingly, all diagnostic techniques early in the episode are necessarily disastrous - thus the MRI, which is always going to be towards the beginning - never works. And from this comes a fundamental piece of the lore of the show.

Similarly, take Elevator Action - a minor classic of the classic arcade game era. Your avatar is a spy seeking to steal secret plans from a building full of black-hatted men with laser pistols and escape out the basement. The major way in which you handle the endless swarm of black-hatted men is to cleverly use elevators to evade them. At the top of the building this is straightforward - a single shaft drops down the center of the building. But as you descend, the pattern of elevators becomes more complex - not all elevators serve all floors, and attention must be split between navigating the building's eccentricities and shooting people.

These floors are where the meat of the game is, and it's a pleasant meat in the classic arcade style. The game, in essence, is about the fabulously bad architecture of the building itself. Understood psychogeographically, a building is a container for lived human experience connected to other containers through an indirectly-causal network constituting a larger container for lived human experience. Or, to put it another way, buildings are where stuff happens. They are thus understandable as media themselves. The classroom building I walk into three days a week is designed to produce classes in an almost industrialized way - uniform, interchangable classrooms, each designed as theaters-in-miniature, thus privileging a particular educational style. Much of this privileging occurs through old decisions - an investment in a particular type of student desk that creates a particular classroom setup, an investment in chalkboards that is anachronistic given their failure to play well with computers, etc.

The building of Elevator Action, bizarrely, is actually designed for being infiltrated from the top down by someone being chased by an endless legion of black-hatted men with laser pistols. Which, from an urban development perspective has to be considered an odd decision that would be a tough sell even in Dynatron City. Which is typically video game, really - the odd, monstrous object that is itself a parallel to the monstrosity inherent in the medium. The building in Elevator Action does not function sanely precisely because it is designed to be part of a difficult-to-control video game.

Or there is Eliminator Boat Duel. Slotting as it does squarely into the long and storied tradition of racing video games, it continues the theme of erratic machines perfectly. Racing games are infamous for a particular mode of artificial intelligence called rubberbanding. In this mode, the skill of computer players is set automatically and dynamically at whatever will pose a suitable challenge. Thus in a racing game if you are doing appallingly badly, computer vehicles will be pegged to go slower so you have a chance of catching back up, whereas if you are doing extremely well, computer vehicles will be sped up to be right on your heels no matter how well you do.

This is a different sort of erratic device, but still fits firmly into the tradition - a device in game that behaves with odd inconsistency but is nevertheless the main thing you have to control and interact with. In this case, however, the device gives the illusion of normal function, as its eccentricities exist because it works in what is functionally a completely different world from the other vehicles. It is impossible to meaningfully describe rubberbanding except in terms of the subjectivity of a given vehicle. That is, it is impossible to definitively state whether the player's vehicle is slowed down if it gets too far ahead or whether opponent vehicles are sped up if they get too far behind.

This is because a racing game has an ambiguous sense of setting. Ostensibly it takes place on a defined track of land. But in reality, a race course is defined via a spatial coherence that is only possible in real space. There is no such thing as a meter in a video game. There is no such thing as any length, in fact, except as determined in relation to another physical object.

At the core of it, of course, this is true for real world measurements - a meter was defined in 1790 in terms of a pendulum, and has gone through several more definitions before reaching its current definition as the distance traversed by light in a vacuum in 1/299792458 of a second. The kilogram, on the other hand, is to this day defined as being equal to a lump of a platinum-iridium alloy sitting in a vault in France. Notably, this cylinder of metal is known to have changed slightly in weight, meaning the definition of a kilogram is in fact always in slight flux. I am, however, unaware of any game that implements anything remotely similar to the kilogram to create a standardized unit of measurement in game. As a result, any measurement is not a reference to an essentially arbitrary absolute, but comparative. At best measurement can be conducted in pixels, but this only works for games with no use of perspectival representation at all.

So a game such as Eliminator Boat Duel is bizarrely arbitrary - two boats race around a track of indeterminate size in mutually contradictory time scales. Such that the track cannot be said to meaningfully contain boats at any point along it, and no boat can meaningfully describe its relationship to any other boat because they are moving through non-space not only at differing speeds, but with differing conceptions of what speed is. The closest thing to a coherent description the game offers is the news that damaged boats go slower. But what damage means is esoteric in this context. Damage is something that impairs normal function - but a boat's job is to traverse water, and given that water, space, and motion are fungible concepts, impairment seems equally obscure.

What is most striking about this is not its eccentricity, but its normality. None of this makes the game even remotely difficult to understand or to play. And Eliminator Boat Duel is actually considerably less strange than some video games - consider, for example, that Hyrule, in the first Zelda game, appears to have an obsession with a measurement that is not only the exact height of a normal human being, but also the size of every single rock, weapon, and indigenous lifeform save a handful of boss monsters.

No. This confused space is not extraneous to video games, nor is it a problem. It is what video games are - temperamental and eccentric machinery.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Attempts to Colonize Inaccessible Island (Dynowarz: The Destruction of Spondylus and Earthbound Zero)

Japan, you have to understand, doesn't exist. Which is probably news to about 127 million people. Also probably to my sister's best friend, who's going to college there. Actually, my sister, who's studying Japanese politics and culture, is probably a bit surprised by it too.

But it doesn't. Japan is an amorphous entity. It is not even true that video games come from it. Rather, video games come from it once they are translated through a capricious filter that may do any number of things to them on the way. Including, occasionally, eating them whole, as a litany of games that were slow to make their way across the Pacific, if they ever do at all, will attest. Super Mario Bros. 2, Dracula X and, of course, Mother.

Katherine Hayles wrote a very clever book called My Mother Was a Computer. Hayles is known best for a philosophy of post-humanism, making her title, on the surface, seemingly a claim about her identity as a post-digital being. In fact, however, she's talking about her literal mother, who, in World War II, was one of the many women who did calculations for various aspects of the war effort and who were known as computers until, eventually, the electronic devices built to automate these processes - previously known as "electronic computers" - assumed the word.

There are those of whom it can be definitively said that their Mother was a video game. The game has no clear US title. Its sequel, Mother 2, for the SNES, was released in the US as Earthbound, leaving the original Mother an orphaned title that is known, by popular acclamation alone, as Earthbound Zero. By either title, it is one of the three legendary JRPGs, along with its neighbors on either side of the alphabet, Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy.

What is most interesting about Earthbound Zero is that, in 1989, it is one of the first video games to actively portray its audience within the game. The main character, traditionally known as Ninten, is a young American boy who would thus be immediately recognizable to the mainstream playing audience as being themselves. The game hinges on the intense normality of its setting - hence its brilliant initial set piece in which Ninten is attacked by a table lamp.

Despite this, the region where its setting is the most normal - the US - is the region it never came out for. It was ready to come out - fully translated and designed - and then the plug was pulled at the last minute, and, bafflingly, has yet to be put back in. This despite the fact that Nintendo could drop the translated version they already have on the Virtual Console tomorrow if they wanted.

This is possibly the largest secret history in place, then. The game could be the Rosetta Stone that connects Japan and the US as a single, coherent aesthetic instead of the bizarre split currently in place. Which is, perhaps, why the game was never released in the US, at least in a more cosmological sense. Because it would render Japan existent, instead of having major portions of our entertainment come from an inscrutable Other.

I should stress here that when I speak of Japan in the context of the NES era, I mean the grapheme to refer to very little that has much to do with the actual nation of 127 million in Asia. These days, Japan is accessible, to a large extent even for a non-Japanese speaker. But much of that comes from communications technology that simply did not exist in 1989, especially for a child. Short of checking out the obligatory two books on Japan at the school library, there was simply no way to understand Japan, and the books did relatively little to explain video games, especially since most of us were lucky if they'd been updated since about 1960. Sufficient communication existed for cultural cross-polination - the NES alone is proof of that, as is the fact that almost every Saturday morning cartoon was actually animated in Asia. But the ability to know about the larger world was restricted to those who regularly went out in the larger world.

But this lack of knowledge of Japan does not translate to an absence as such. Japan was ever present, but in a strange ghostly state. Like the trails of an electron in the cloud chamber, we knew Japan not from what it did, but from its echoes and effects. Japan was the logical conclusion of the data, a sort of cultural Higgs-Boson, clearly supported by the theory and never quite manifesting in practice. Japan is the absent father, the inscrutable signifier.

So of course Mother never saw US translation. It is not that it could not be released in the US, but rather that it had to not be released in the US, that the father's offering of Mother had to be denied.

This denial has consequences, some of them quite good. For instance, we have Dynowarz: The Destruction of Spondylus. Dynowarz makes exactly the sort of sense that video games featuring robotic dinosaurs should make, which is basically none. Apparently, and I'm going on Wikipedia here, an evil mad scientist with an army of Robosaurs has wrecked the life support computers in the Spondylus solar system, and Professor Proteus must use his new model Robosaur, Cyborasaurus (which Wikipedia, in a rare moment of brilliance, describes as "truly devastating") to fight them.

This does not actually have to be a good game. It can get by just fine on being a playable game, and it does narrowly clear that bar. But what it relies on is the inherent inscrutability of its concept. The game makes sense only because robotic dinosaurs offer their own teleology. Once you introduce them to a situation, the situation is immediately clarified. This is perhaps the most truly devastating thing about them - that there is no ambiguity whatsoever to a Robosaur. And once you introduce it, nothing else needs to make sense so long as it can be explained in terms of the Robosaur.

How does a robotic dinosaur obtain such teleology? Part of it is a matter of component parts. Dinosaurs certainly have their own teleology, as Dinosaur Comics illustrates. The comic works in part because it is specifically dinosaurs in the unchanging panels. Robots also have their own teleology, as evidenced by the fact that there is nothing on the planet that is not more awesome if the prefix "robo" is added to it. (Test: Parrot. Coffee table. Papaya. See? It works.)

But this just begs the question. Why are giant lizards and robots their own teleology? Of the myriad of extinct life forms on the planet, including many giant species, why are the dinosaurs the ones that are iconic?

Because they are monsters. The word "monster" comes from a Latin root meaning to show or display.  The strange nature of the robosaur extends straightforwardly from this - monsters are that which must be shown, that must be seen. Classically, the term refers to circus freaks. Monsters were literally objects of spectacle, put on display to be gawked at. For all the terror it engenders, this remains the main point of a monster. Monsters are there to be seen - which is why their absence and the withholding of the monster is often so much scarier than an actual monster.

But what is interesting is that monsters, by and large, only have mothers. Like the NES, the father is absent. Consider the classics - Grendel or Caliban. Both have known and monstrous mothers, but ambiguous fathers (hence the whole point of the CGI Beowulf film). This lack of a clear creator gives them an inherent teleological force - the force that allows Dynowarz to exist. And, more importantly, the force that allows the NES to exist.

The NES, at the end of the day, is a glorious monster. And like any great monster, it is the last of its kind. No more islands remain in the world for a great beast to hail from. We have mapped the world. With this task done, we may only look within for a monster.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Embodied Gruesome Band (Dungeon Magic: Sword of the Elements, Dusty Diamond's All-Star Softball)

sound on the NES is that it primarily works by altering rectangular waves instead of the more common sinusoidal waves. This is responsible for the relative harshness of the sound, and is what made electronic music such an initially anarchic force in pop music. Thus one is never dying or being born, but merely alive or dead. Death is not an event but a state-of-being, and one that is ingrained into the muscle memory, rendering the death drive as corporeal as the territory/map.

The digital nature of the game's corporeal embodiment is also responsible for making the technological limitations of the game an integral part of the death process. This is particularly true in terms of the music. See, when the NES crashed, it would often freeze in a state where it was emitting sound. Absent the system altering the sound waves to produce music, the system would simply emit a single unchanging tone until it was turned off or reset. This unchanging tone is profoundly unnatural - regardless of what tone it happens to be.

In the context of a system crash, the existence of this tone adds stress to the already tense moment of Heideggarian recognition of object-as-thing. The NES is never quite so iconic as when it is not working, hence the universal recognition that taking a non-functioning piece of electronics and blowing in it is a valid method of repair. In this regard, there is perhaps no game, in my world, quite as iconic as Dusty Diamond's All-Star Softball, in that as soon as I pick what field I want to play my simulated game of softball on, the game crashes to black and emits a continual tone. Which I, of course, dutifully listened to for half an hour straight. (No, I'm lying. Not even I am that crazy.)

Which returns us to one of the recurring images of the NES, death. Ooh, yes, another cheery blog entry. I've argued before that death is the fundamental mode of the video game because, at the end of the day, eventually all video game systems are turned off. (It is interesting to note that my other major blog, TARDIS Eruditorum, is about Doctor Who, which is instead fundamentally about life because the story need never actually end.) The experience of playing a video game is defined by the three key failure points that exist - beating the game, losing the game, or smashing into a technical wall in playing the game.

It is the space within these perimeters of disfunction that what is interesting in a game takes place. The odd contours of this were far more apparent in the NES era due to the lack of a now-commonplace (and rightly so) invention, namely the automap. The question of mapping in video games is, mercifully, not one we have to think about much anymore, due mostly to the fact that games take care of it for us. But back in the NES era, players were largely expected to create maps themselves.

This is bizarre these days - the only remotely recent game I've played without automapping that I can think of is EverQuest, a game that was, for the most part, the last flourishing of the grotesque sadism of early video games, and even there it was only tolerable because extremely high quality maps were posted on the Internet by players.

But in, say, 1989, when Dungeon Magic: Sword of the Elements came out, the idea that the player would have to draw up a map was simply assumed. Certainly the game is not remotely playable without a map. The technical limitations of the NES otherwise demanded an extremely limited depth of vision and repetitive scenery that more or less completely eliminates most of the non-mapping senses of direction we have.

What is interesting about mapping in a video game is that it throws away one of the primary assumptions of modern cartography. In mapping a video game world out by hand, the map is, in fact, the territory. The kingdom of Granville has no actual territory, existing already as a set of abstractions and rules within the technical confines of a 5.25x4.75x.75 inch plastic container for circuitry. Being already abstract, the map generated by the player is not a mere obtuse abstraction of the material, but rather a translation of its signification to a slightly different language. In learning the abstraction of Granville with sufficient depth to map it is the only genuine way to actually experience the territory. In video games, the land is not the territory.

It is easy to wax nostalgic about the corporeal nature of engagement with the game. Though there is a certain strange perversity to doing so. After all, the current trend in video games is corporeal engagement - the Wii, Move, and Kinect all rely on it, as does the idea of touch interface promoted by the DS, iOS, etc, and even the stereoscopic illusions of the forthcoming 3DS. But the strangely sanitary nature of the engagement makes these systems rarely ready-to-hand - and in the rare cases where they have been, remedies like thicker wriststraps and Wii Condoms (I believe the official name is "Wii Remote Jackets") have been rushed out to restore the seamlessness of the experience.

But more to the point, corporeal engagement with technology sucks. This is at the heart of the reason that, for instance, the Daleks are one of the most iconic and successful designs for a monster-type villain ever - because they look like homicidal kitchen appliances. In other words, they are the embodiment of the fear of technology's physical embodiment. Well, that and you can readily become a Dalek by sticking a trash can over your head and making a Hitler salute, making it ideal for childhood games. Though I'm in no way confident that this is not actually the same reason stated in superficially different ways.

But the linking of corporeal technological engagement and death is significant. Because they are linked. The reason one needs to become the territory/map is that the alternative is death. Failure to adequately and safely navigate Granville (and I should insert a parenthetical here about the strangeness of naming your pseudo-medieval kingdom after a small town in central Ohio) results in death - in my case, usually by being eaten by the bright purple giant snakes that are apparently the indigenous lifeform of the area. This results in one of the finest death messages on the NES, "Your life is over." Which, actually, is a bit harsh.

But it marks the true sadism of the video game. Installed on our wetware, the video game takes permanent residence on our central nervous system, making possible the Nintendo Project. Because once this is accomplished, game states not resulting in further play - previously a problem primarily because they cost a quarter to fix - become personal deaths - the actual destruction of part of the nervous system.

Properly, of course, video games form an oscillation in which one is embodied and disembodied - cast back and forth between a state of life and state of death. Usually when we speak of oscillation, we have in mind a sinusoidal wave - that is, a wave with distinct rises and falls. But the video game, particularly in the 8-bit era, is wholly digital. The ramping states of the sinusoidal wave simply do not exist here. The NES control pad, unlike modern control pads, is non-analog. Thus where modern controllers distinguish between a button being lightly pressed or smashed down, the NES controller did not. The four directions of the D-Pad were simply absolute - up or not-up. Eight direction control could be simulated by simultaneously pressing two directions, but no gradiations between Up and Up-Left, for instance, could possibly exist. Indeed, Up is not even the opposite of Down - in emulation it is possible to press both buttons simultaneously, and doing so in fact has distinct effect in some games, leading to a number of key hacks for speed-runs.

The purely digital nature of the games, it should be noted, extends even to the game music. The key thing to realize about synthesized

Monday, February 7, 2011

Desperately Seeking Urizen (DuckTales, DuckTales 2)

Part 3 of an occasional series on the Disney Afternoon. Part 1 and Part 2 can be found by clicking on the obvious places within this sentence. 

A firm foundation - terra firma, so to speak. But what does that mean when one is building an archeology - when one's entire purpose is to disrupt the ground? If there is a lesson of ducks, it is that the firmest ground one can find may well be an illusion.

DuckTales is notable as the only licensed game to routinely make "best of the system" lists for the NES. Which is rare enough for any system - licensed games are usually key parts of the vast glut of mediocrity that makes up a given system. If the superlative is employed to describe them, "best" is usually not the word of choice.

When the Disney Afternoon launched, DuckTales and Chip 'n Dale were its anchor points - TaleSpin was the unknown new property, and the block's original kickoff show, Gummi Bears, was a rubbish holdover that had made its way through two networks before settling in to a dotage in syndication. It was the 3:30-4:30 hour that was where the magic was.

The video game launched more or less concurrently with the Disney Afternoons, and so is clearly part of this definable cultural moment of 1990. As most of the series had aired when the game was released, the designers had a rich tapestry to draw from, and did so freely. Many of the levels correspond loosely to the concepts of episodes of the series, with recognizable monsters in amongst video game standards. For instance, the boss of the African Mines level is recognizable as the Terra-Firmian King from the first season episode Earth Quack.

In this episode, Scrooge and his nephews discover the vast subterranean world of the Terries and Fermies, who create earthquakes with their occasional contests to roll into the pillars holding the earth up. The episode is completely bonkers - it's a mad, absurd premise that is thus perfect for afternoon cartoons because they necessarily get out of the story and on to something else before the novelty wears off.

The thing is, a savvy viewer of Duck Tales in 1987 would have caught something else significant about Earth Quack, which is that it is itself recognizable as an adaptation of Carl Barks's 1956 comic story "The Land Beneath the Ground!" So in the iconic 1990 video game DuckTales is a reference to an iconic 1987 cartoon episode that is itself an adaptation of an iconic 1956 comic story. And notably, the majority of the audience of the video game and the cartoon episode could be assumed to be unaware of the antecedent. That is, most players of DuckTales do not go "Ooh, I remember that episode" upon reaching the end of the African Mines, nor do most viewers of Earth Quack go "Ooh, I remember that comic."

Which is grimly ironic for Carl Barks, whose life is basically defined by being one of the best comics writers never to get a meaningful amount of credit for his work. In the 1940s and 50s, when he was at his prime, he was drawing the most popular comics in the world - Disney's duck comics. He invented almost every duck character that isn't Donald - Scrooge, the nephews, Gyro Gearloose - all of them were Carl Barks creations. DuckTales, as a concept, is nothing more than "let's make an animated series out of those old Carl Barks comics."

Except that for most of his life, he was anonymous. Company practice was that all comics would be ghostwritten, with Walt Disney's signature on them, in order to maintain the illusion that Disney himself did them. People were not generally fooled, and the mythos arose in the late 1950s among afficianados of the comics of "The Good Duck Artist" - the anonymous figure who could be identified stylistically as producing some of the best duck comics going.

In 1960, Carl Barks was finally identified. Shortly thereafter, he retired, but due to his popularity and contributions, managed the then-unprecedented feat of obtaining permission from Disney to privately sell duck art for a living, surviving in retirement off of selling oil paintings of the duck characters, and living until August of 2000.

DuckTales, for which Barks received no royalties, amounted to an attempt to adapt the comics to half-hour cartoons for a new generation of children. (Put in a more cynical way, this massive franchise, created by a company that is one of the most zealous defenders of intellectual property laws, amounts to a decades-long exploitation the intellectual work of one man who died with no significant estate or major assets. Ain't history grand?)

Because the impact of the Barks stories really is absolutely massive. The Disney comics he wrote are still a titanic deal in Europe - in fact, his main successor on the duck books, Don Rosa, basically made his career on comics that saw first publication in European translations. Furthermore, there is Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart's bizarre and intriguing 1971 book How to Read Donald Duck, a Marxist cultural critique of the then-popular-in-Chile duck comics.

Certainly this is a fascinating study in cultural artifacts worthy of some AV Club or I Love The 80s retrospective on DuckTales. But that's not what the Nintendo Project is. The question here is whether there is some essential insight to be found this bizarre thread of memetic DNA that has, improbably, survived for over 30 years in a recognizable form through two transformations each of which is major enough to shear off most of the memetic DNA.

This requires understanding exactly what the memetic DNA is. Which is not just a matter of analyzing the role of the Terra-Firmian king in the African Mines level (which is itself designed brilliantly as a loop circling a centrally-positioned boss monster, thus quietly reinforcing the "king of the center of the earth" concept).

This could be done via an extensive analysis of the Barks material and its impact. But to do so would essentially be a matter of repeating the life work of Donald Ault, Professor of English at the University of Florida, member of my PhD committee, and all-around genius.

I am not the best person in the world to write about Donald Ault. He has numerous students who worked more closely with him. And this is in some ways a very difficult entry, because things that I would feel comfortable saying with ten years of hindsight about people who haven't seen me this millennium are a different proposition when talking about someone who was grilling you on whether you could get your PhD less than a year ago.

Adding to this complexity is that, although Dr. Ault was a major influence on my graduate career and intellectual life, our personal relationship had its tempestuous moments for reasons that are firmly both of our faults. On top of that, vast stretches of his scholarship are functionally unpublished, existing only as introductions to collected editions of Barks comics from decades ago. Plans continually exist to compile these articles in a new edition, whether printed or online, but they are stymied by what can only be described as one of the most catastrophic failures of version control I have ever seen.

See, the trouble with Dr. Ault is that he is, by his own admission, the living avatar and re-embodiment of  Donald Duck himself. By which I mean that he is spectacularly mishap-prone. On top of that, he is also the archetype of the mad professor - his house a mad thicket of memorabilia and archives. He does not so much suffer from as revel in an inability to buy one of anything, instead buying three of everything in case he loses one, losing all three, and buying three more to replace them. His research is characterized by a wonderfully gritty, material focus on things like the differences between various edits and transmitted versions of cartoons, and so he will buy something on every format it has ever come out for. His office, as of about 2007, still had multiple working Betamax machines in it in order to support this tendency.

But within the completely mad contours of his head lies one of the most jaw-dropping intellectual landscapes I've ever brushed up against. His reading of Carl Barks, to put it broadly, is an insane genius. You can see much of it in this article if you like, but I want to call attention specifically to paragraph fifteen, in which he observes the startling lack of coherence in a Carl Barks cover, despite the fact that the cover is an extremely simple gag that a complete idiot could get.

Central to his interpretation of Barks is the fact that he reads the Barks comics as taking place in a fundamentally chaotic narrative space that is structured entirely around a sense of wonder and gags. So, for instance, in the cover gag, one of the nephews is caught by Donald vandalizing a pumpkin pie. His knife is in the pie cutting out a Jack-O-Lantern style mouth, and that slice is actively being eaten by the other two nephews at the base of the table. So the single panel simultaneously includes the moment of the vandalism, the moment of reveling in the results of the vandalism, and the moment of getting caught, despite the fact that these three moments are necessarily non-simultaneous. Which raises the question, what, exactly, is the cover image a picture of?

This uncanny weirdness is not surprising when one considers that Dr. Ault's other main research passion is William Blake. Indeed, one way of looking at his career is as a concerted attempt to explain why a research career consisting of William Blake and Donald Duck is actually one research project and not two completely separate ones. Unfortunately, it is this work that is least well-represented among what is readily published and available, although hints of it can be found in the article linked above.

The thing about Blake is that the poor man is woefully misrepresented in English classes, where The Tyger is usually treated as a designated stopping-off point in a larger tour of English Romantic Poetry. This should, generally be speaking, treated as one of the biggest mercies English teachers show, because the alternative would be to do something truly nuts like try to hack through the Book of Urizen, which would result in reading things like:

In anguish dividing & dividing
For pity divides the soul
In pangs eternity on eternity
Life in cataracts pourd down his cliffs 
The void shrunk the lymph into Nerves
Wand'ring wide on the bosom of night
And left a round globe of blood
Trembling upon the Void
Thus the Eternal Prophet was divided 
Before the death-image of Urizen
For in changeable clouds and darkness
In a winterly night beneath,
The Abyss of Los stretch'd immense: 
And now seen, now obscur'd, to the eyes
Of Eternals, the visions remote
Of the dark seperation appear'd.
As glasses discover Worlds
In the endless Abyss of space, 
So the expanding eyes of Immortals
Beheld the dark visions of Los,
And the globe of life blood trembling

Which, while awesome, is enough to reduce most undergraduates to tears. Actually, it's enough to reduce most teachers to tears, which is probably why it's not widely assigned. Because Blake, like Barks,  offers a world in which contradiction is possible and generative - in which metonymy and synecdoche are fundamental parts of the world, and pataphor is not an esoteric philosophy of art but a survival kit.

Buried among the terries and the fermies, this vein of ideastuff runs deep to a point of uncanny power. The surviving memetic DNA is not merely incidentally potent, but consciously potent, kept alive by a strange power inherent in the ideas.

But it is more than that. Duck Tales 2, another rightly forgotten late-NES cash-in sequel, offers little of the referential power of Duck Tales. Only the Scottish castle level has any sort of resonance back with the old Carl Barks material, and that's faint at best. No obvious monster parallels presented themselves as with the Terra-Firmian King. The memetic DNA has gone cold only three years after the glorious original.

It is not merely that there is powerful memetic DNA buried in the secret histories of these games. The NES had an arc with a specific moment - a few years in which all roads led to it in the psychic landscape. Before that is the story of how the NES came to be. After that is the story of its decline and giving way to a new world. There are only a few years where the NES reigned supreme.

What is it about that small band of history that makes it firm ground for these explorations? Why this spot of terra firma in the mental landscape?

And how far down, exactly, can the digging go?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Soldiers of the Future (Duck Hunt)

This, then, is the primal scene in its first appearance. No serpents or dragons to be seen. Not even a rabbit. Just ducks. Ducks and a laughing dog. There is no particular mythic significance to ducks. A quick consult with my dictionary of symbols suggests only that I might instead want to look up "goose," a paragraph long entry about maternal instinct. So unless I want to get very Freudian about the symbolism of killing the maternal with a gigantic phallic gun, which, I'll readily admit, I kind of do, the mythic here will have to come from the actual history of the game.

Good thing we've got Duck Hunt then - one of a few games that can make a case for being the primal scene of the NES, given that it was one of the pack-in games for the system, along with its signature peripheral, the Zapper.

The future is formed, then, in a strangely incongruous moment. Everyone who had an NES played Duck Hunt - it was a packed-in game for most of the system's run. It is, for a number of reasons, not a classic game as such. It is designed in the classic arcade style - clearly intended to be played for a few quarters and no longer. There's no depth to the game play save the hope that the difficulty curve will drop most players before the game gets too boring. It is important because it is a touchstone. Nobody loves Duck Hunt, but everybody has played it, and it is inexorably linked to memories of other, actually good games.

The game is memorable beyond its cultural significance, true, but this comes mostly down to Nintendo's already discussed skill at making incidental characters memorable, in this case with the dog being a fairly flagrant homage to Shigeru Miyamoto's mocking ape. Indeed, it is the mockery of the dog, more than anything else, that stands out, with numerous "shoot the dog" remakes of Donkey Kong existing.

Part of the game's charm is that it is a game that is overtly magical, relying on a deliberately mysterious phenomenon. Most NES games work in a basically explicable way - you push a button on a controller that is wired up to the NES. The NES, which is wired up to the television, displays the results of your button push on the screen. The screen and the controller do not interact directly. But with Duck Hunt and the Zapper, they do. Duck Hunt works based on whether or not the Zapper is correctly aimed at something on the screen.

Indeed, by all appearances, the NES drops out of the equation entirely. From the player's perspective, particularly when that player is, as most NES players were, a small child, the gun acts directly upon the screen.

In truth, the Zapper is in fact an extremely simple camera. When you pull the trigger, the screen flashes black, then white where the duck is. The photosensor inside the Zapper then judges whether or not it is looking at white light or not (comparing it to the previous image of a black screen) and registers the hit accordingly. At the primal scene, then, we can see the future. The Zapper is a prototypic version of the Wii. There the sensor bar is in fact a set of infra-red LEDs - it senses nothing. The Wii remote sees the LEDs, and can determine its position relative to the sensor bar based on how the LEDs look to it.

But in this case, reality is the secret history. Almost nobody is actually influenced directly by the clear arc of history leading from the Zapper to the Wii. That history is instead buried under the experienced history, which is a complete fabrication.

In the experienced history, the Zapper is a gun that acts upon the television. The television, in other words, is changed from a mere screen that displays content (albeit in some cases interactive content) to something that can be directly acted upon and altered. The TV, in Duck Hunt, is aware of its audience, as opposed to a mere passive receiver of signal.

Thus Duck Hunt, combined with the (now retro-)futuristic design of the NES and Zapper, made a compelling case that video games changed what a television was. Once the NES was hooked up to it, the technology of television visibly evolved, becoming something altogether more unusual and interesting.

I noted above that ducks are not widely represented in creation mythology. But they are not unrepresented. Here they are. In older life, we know the television is, in reality, passive. Most of us know that the Zapper cannot work as we imagined. But the knowledge of how it does work is esoteric. The Zapper is a mystery of childhood for most of the Nintendo generation. The enduring mystery of the Zapper serves as the creation myth of the Nintendo generation - the point where we realized that we'd rather be in the future.

The power of this creation myth is that knowledge does not undo it. Knowing the truth of the technology does not alter the experience anymore than understanding human biology alters the primal scene.

We were flown away to the future on the wings of a duck.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Draconic Miscellany (Dragon's Lair)

0) Dragons demarcate the fringes of the map. In psychogeography, these are where the movement through defined spaces gives way to exploration. Psychochronography is no different. These, then, are the remainders of dragons - the archipelagoes of loose draconic thought at the fringes of the topic, before we change gears and get to something more anatine.

1) I first played Dragon's Lair and its semi-sequel Escape From Singe's Castle on the Commodore 64. The game was fascinating in its breadth and quality of graphics, and virtually unplayable in its difficulty - one of the rare bad games to leave a lasting impression on me.

2) When I was in eighth grade or so, there was a new girl in school. Up from Maryland, a state I have, in hindsight, had intensely mixed luck with, she displayed the previously unwitnessed combination of being clearly a bit geeky and clearly attractive, which, to an eighth grade geeky boy, basically stuns you into complete silence where "you" is defined as "me."

I knew she liked dragons. I also eventually discovered she was on AOL - I think by just searching people in Newtown. On a pure lark of the sort that ought be familiar to any Internet-age suburban teenager, I decided to try logging onto her AOL account with the password "dragon," and, to my surprise, logged in. I sent her an e-mail from her own account letting her know she had an easy to guess password, and logged back out without doing anything.

Years later, she would be one of my earliest intense relationships, and the one that, for me, mentally demarcates between immature high school relationships and more serious ones, although I can never quite decide which column of the ledger to put it in. This blog post is the closest I have ever come to telling her about the fact that I hacked her e-mail 14 years ago. (Really sorry, by the way. I really did just wonder if it would work.)

3) The thing about Dragon's Lair is that it's a port of an already lousy game. The original was an arcade game using the then-cutting edge technology of Laserdiscs. Basically, it was an animated movie with brief moments where you could intervene with a button press to select scenes. It is thus, to my knowledge, the only ostensibly classic arcade game to be successfully ported to DVD - because the entire game can, in fact, be represented with interactive menus.

4) I know the story second-hand, but as I understand it there was someone in my social circle who was a dragon otherkin, and she got engaged with a plan to get married about five years later. This created some puzzlement among my friends that was eventually settled when one friend, whose gift for snarky comments is almost as high as that of my sister, wryly commented "dragons do things differently."

5) The problem is that the entire point of Dragons Lair is its graphics. That's what the Laserdisc enabled - movie quality graphics. But as a result, the rest of the game had to be subservient to the Laserdisc technology. That's why the gameplay is a glorified DVD menu. Where this stops making a damned bit of sense is on the home ports. The NES, obviously, could not come anywhere close to Laserdisc quality graphics. So the basic point of the game - the stunning graphics - was necessarily lost on the ports. 

6) A few weeks after my wife left me and my father had a stroke, my sister and I went to Dragon*Con in Atlanta. I have not done a lot of sci-fi conventions. They are not something I would want to spend a lot of time doing, but on the occasions I've done them, they're fantastic. What you'd think is the appeal - celebrity tracking - is not. In part this is because, let's face it, a lot of celebrities are rubbish at talking about their work, and, for that matter, a lot of fans are rubbish at asking questions that give celebrities the opportunity to say something interesting. No. What's delightful about conventions is the sort of intense happiness fans bring to it. The amount of work and effort and dedication that fans put into what makes them happy. I am not and never have been one for immersion. But on the other hand, most of us could learn a lot from dedicated fans about the art of doing what makes you happy. And that's a pretty fantastic thing to go for after your wife leaves you and your father has a stroke.

7) No, I mean, I really spent over half of my half-hour of Dragon's Lair on the first screen. There's a subgenre of games exemplified by things like The Unfair Platformer. They're basically parodies of overly hard NES games where there are just gratuitous traps that can only be found through wasting a lot of time dying and learning the pattern of the game. They're supposed to be over the top - no game is actually supposed to have as many stupid and unexpected ways to die as they do.

8) The dragon - specifically a silver version of Y Ddraig Goch - is the emblem of House Ailil, my preferred house in my preferred tabletop roleplaying game, White Wolf's long-defunct Changeling: The Deraming. Changeling is notable as one of only a handful of fictional works that I have found actual value in getting hugely invested in. This is rare for me. Given my antipathy towards immersion, it requires an enormously interesting set of metaphors - one that can be used to tell and look at a whole lot of things. In the case of Changeling, it is the fact that the game is explicitly meta-fictional - that Changeling games are about stories, and preserving them. Given that Changeling is itself a story, this gives fascinating consequences to a Changeling game - it is always about the preservation of its own narrative.

9) Dragon's Lair for the NES is basically The Unfair Platformer only you have a limited number of lives.

10) Dragons are what keeps the map from resolving. The remaining unknown territory. There is no eliminating them. There is no such thing as a complete map.