Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Pixels Without Organs (Flying Dragon: The Secret Scroll, Flying Warriors)

The usual refrain about Japan - that it doesn't exist - feels crassly inappropriate today. But firing up two games with tons of martial arts makes it enormously tempting anyway.

Except, of course, that both Flying Dragon and Flying Warriors are kung fu games. To the 7-9 year old I was when these games came out, this would mean they were Japanese. This is because the only major distinction I had about East Asian cultures was that China was where the food came from and Japan was where the video games came from. Kung fu and karate were split decisions, but since they appeared more often in video games than in Wonton Soup, I tended to put them on the Japan end of things.

This is one of the many places where being under ten is not entirely helpful to developing an accurate understanding of the world. If one is actually going by empirical facts that have happened in the world, after all, Kung Fu is Chinese. Karate is Japanese. That's pretty much that. Flying Dragon and Flying Warriors are both about kung fu, and so even if they were made in Japan, they are not about Japan.

On the other hand, just because they have kung fu does not particularly mean that they are about China any more than Super Mario Bros is about Italy. 

So what are they about? Flying Dragon: The Secret Scroll, on the most basic level, appears to be about running along punching yard trash enemies in the face and occasionally doing some jumping. Being an NES game, there's not a lot more to draw on. Some plot exists about the secret scrolls teaching Hiryu-No-Ken, the ultimate kung fu fighting stance, but let's be honest, this is a fairly standard The Magical Foo Has Been Broken Into N Parts, Please Go Fight Through N Levels and Defeat the N Bosses Guarding The Parts of The Foo, Then Defeat The Evil Bar plot. The scrolls of Hiryu-No-Ken are fundamentally interchangeable with every other damned broken up quest object in video game history.

This section of the game is followed by an attempt at a straightforward fighting game on the NES - a decision that really never once worked out in the developers' favor. This one turns into a straightforward "hit the button corresponding to the flashing signal" romp, only with some memorization over what buttons go with what signals. Inasmuch as this is about anything, it appears to be about the tedium of late capitalism where even our entertainment is an abusive labor relationship. In capitalist America, game plays you. This, it should be noted, is the main game mechanism of Flying Warriors.

The fact of the matter is that NES games are a poor mechanism for ideology. They lack things. The background of both games is an ill-defined sludge of pixels that, at least to a Westerner, poorly correspond to any actual cultural signifiers besides "Asian." But crucially, displaced through ancient mythos and cultural lines, one gets the strong sense that these kung fu games were not ever usefully signifying a specific culture.

Which has always been the underlying point of denying the existence of nationalities. Because in the NES, the technical tools to represent reality with that kind of detail just aren't there. This is not China, or Japan, or Asia, but a strange non-place of non-objects, a vague cultural reference that points to nothing save its own constructed irreality.

This is why, contra-XKCD, it's absurd to treat the endless stream of low-level villains in a video game as people. The flood of kung fu fighters in Flying Dragon are not merely interchangeable with one another, they are actually indistinguishable from one another. There is actually no difference whatsoever between one and the next. That's the entire point of an enemy in these games - that they reappear with infuriating regularity. Every kung fu guy in Flying Dragon is merely a copy of the first one, containing no meaningful attributes beyond their iteration from the original.

Likewise, in Flying Warriors, every fight is exactly the same. Enemies are at best sprite-swaps of the same endless pattern, taking place still in some space that is not even imaginary. Imaginary spaces can at least possess imaginary objects.

The danger comes when one signifier encompasses both categories. When "Japan" signifies both an archipelago that has suffered unimaginable devastation and a mental construction of interchangable non-things, there is indeed a problem.

The most obvious solution is to simply give up on representationalism entirely in media that cannot offer seamless realism. Better solutions welcome in comments.


  1. My instinct is to shout "EDUCATION". People don't know much about actual Japan? Teach them. Not really addressing the core social issues, but I can't think of much better either.

    It doesn't help that these societies that exist somewhere on the other side of the world, and especially their histories that we find so fascinating (samurai with swords!) are complicated.

    Take martial arts. Kung fu is Chinese, and doesn't actually refer to martial arts in particular, but is something of a catch-all term used by Westerners. Karate is Okinawan, and thus Japanese (enough), but its actual content owes more to Chinese influence. In fact, just from the form of its practice itself, it is Chinese. Basically, karate is kung fu.

    Flying Dragon is further complicated by "Hiryu-No-Ken", which is Japanese, even though we're dealing with kung fu. Before you even take it into the subjectivity of 80s America or some particular 9-year-old, China and Japan have already been made into a molten "East Asia" image.

    These days, most Americans still don't know that much about actual East Asia, including a good many who think they do. Genuine knowledge, let alone understanding, of Japan remain nearly a secret history. In that respect, we haven't improved that much since the 80s.

    So I'm at a loss here too. Unless we can just make people know more, then imagery necessarily creates a conflict between the reality of people and the simulation of the representation, which is very, very far from seamless.

  2. As another example of how we haven't improved since the '80s in our understanding of the difference between China and Japan, take the recent remake of "The Karate Kid." It is set in China (actually Hong Kong, I believe. I haven't seen it) and Jackie Chan plays Mr. Miyagi and teaches not karate, but kung fu to the "kid."

    Should we expect more from video game designers? Even Japanese ones?