Thursday, March 10, 2011

Jeux Sans Frontieres (Fisher Price Firehouse Rescue, Fisher Price I Can Remember, Fisher Price Perfect Fit)

1990 was the last year before the end of the world. Armageddon, we had known for over forty years, would come for us huddled underneath school desks. We trained for it, if not in as many words, dress rehearsals for our incineration. Ours was a long, twilight apocalypse. We'd use the term armageddon, but it was misleading. This was not some biblical war of Christ and Anti-Christ with a victor and a loser. The assurance that either side would walk away from the battlefield had long since been abandoned, and with it the capacity to assume that there was still such a thing as good and evil. We elected patriots less out of an ideological commitment as because they were the only ones daft enough to keep the war running. Think for a moment about what sort of person is required to have their finger on the button in a war ensuring mutual annihilation and probably the extinction of the entire species. A senile cowboy actor is actually about the only person who would take that job in the first place.

1992, on the other hand, is the first year after the end of the world. To more or less everybody's surprise, the Cold War ends not with a bang but with palace intrigue as the USSR abruptly decides to try its hand at collapsing. The US begins a brief flirtation with liberalism again before an unexpected rise of Christian fundamentalism, flowing in to fill the space left by the collapse of the eschatology of nuclear war. But by and large, the world has the feel of an unexpected and not entirely advised sequel - as if the end of the film has been hastily reshot to leave the main characters alive and a sequel that nobody was actually calling for was rushed into production.

Like any bad sequel, it was mostly done for the toy tie-ins, especially after we saw how marvelous the Gulf War Trading Cards were. Which explains why, in 1991, Fisher Price revised their classic Little People line to be less prone to killing children who might accidentally try to swallow them. (This gives you an idea of how disorienting the sudden realization that we might not all be vaporized was. Even the toys stopped being fatal.)

Taken collectively, then, these three games span from the tail end of the Cold War to the dawn of a now two-decade long stretch of wandering around belligerently trying to find someone to have a proper war against. (To get the maximum effect, picture the US going to the UN using handkerchief flagging to try to attract a buxom young despotic regime to fight. "Oh, Saddam, you're wearing a blue hankie in your left pocket. How fabulous.")

The Fisher Price toys are a particularly good metaphor for all of this because they're bland and interchangeable caricatures of people who are made out of plastic. In current times the metaphorical cachet of plastic has faded slightly in favor of silicone, which has helpful lexical ties to silicon. Note, however, that this is not new - prior to the rise of the digital plastics served the same semiotic role of covering both bodily augmentation and consumer technology. But that coverage was considerably more direct, leading to the image of plastic people. (Eventually this parenthetical comment will explain the relevance of the Doctor Who stories The Tenth Planet, Spearhead from Space, Terror of the Autons, and Rose to this discussion, complete with links to TARDIS Eruditorum entries on all of them. Or I might forget to go back and add those links once I write those entries.)

But if plastic people mark the steady transition from being to object, the Little People defy this in favor of traffic running primarily in the opposite direction. That is, they are objects that children are encouraged to bestow personality to, thus setting up the eventual back-transition from subjectivity to objectivity. But, of course, these games, positioned in 1990 and 1992, also straddle the World Wide Web, making the later game, Firehouse Rescue, post-obsolecence for plastic, and the earlier games, I Can Remember and Perfect Fit, an odd prefiguring of the siliconation to come.

This split explains the split in the nature of the games as well. I Can Remember and Perfect Fit are both essentially formless games. The first is a basic Concentration implementation, the second is a painfully simple game of matching silhouettes to objects. They have no people in them, nor a clear and defined setting - they are pure games in the style of Tetris. These games thus tie in with the late-stage paranoias of the Cold War, and an essentially bodiless future.

Curiously, after the end of the Cold War and the beginning of siliconation, the Little People rose again. As I said, in this case history was largely chasing the toy tie-ins. As the future suddenly became concrete after the deferral of decades of anticipated vaporization, we returned to the concrete physicality of generic world-building. Neither dolls in the Barbie sense nor action figures, the Little People avoid the twin poles of sex and death in favor of simple socialization. The purpose of the Little People is to exist mundanely.

But in their new, chunkier form, the Little People do not exist mundanely in a vacuum. They are survivors of an apocalypse that never was, the ashes of unvaporized bodies. They are mundane people born of raw paranoia. This strange tension is exemplified in Firehouse Rescue, a game in which you intently drive a fire truck around to let people climb down the ladder from houses that do not appear to be burning. If they are burning, you certainly pay no particular attention to that - once everybody is out, you speed off, leaving the house to burn.

So the game revolves around rescuing people who do not need to be rescued from a non-dangerous situation. Oh, and solving mazes. But the mazes are just set-up for the rescues. In later levels, there are more people to rescue, but this in no way corresponds to actual tension - one does not race against the clock for the actual rescues. The people are simply a surplus of bodies, all rendered in Little People style.

This, then, was our position at the fall of the NES. The return of the physical not a the future, but as a relic that would demand rescue regardless of actual threat. The moment, in many ways, where the generation gap that underlies the bulk of contemporary politics tore open, and we the digital realized that we were on the opposite side of it from the forces of power. The game is not merely bad - although it is that. It is offensively bad, a game that actively sticks the player with tedious busywork seemingly unrelated to the actual business of accomplishing anything. The game refuses to be fun, instead threatening the player and medium with the unsettling prospect of being on the wrong side of an emerging cultural divide. One that has yet to settle.

The NES rose in the age of Thatcher's Britain and Reagan's America. It fell in the dawn of a far stranger and more troubling era. And that end of the legacy is, in the end, the weirder of the two.


  1. Please fill in the Dr Who citation when you find time. We are waiting.

  2. Well, Tenth Planet is tentatively scheduled for April 15th. Spearhead will probably not be until summer, then, and I don't anticipate seeing Rose dealt with in 2011. So it'll be a while, I fear. :)