Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Word That Means Sacred and Profane (Freedom Force, Friday the 13th, Fun House)

I had a friend once, in grad school. (I mean, I suppose he still is my friend. He was the best man at my wedding. I just don't have current contact information for him, and the bugger's not on Facebook, which, let's face it, is increasingly a major barrier to anyone keeping in touch with you.) He and I got along well, but my occasional tendency to get into savage flame wars on the grad student listserv, particularly coupled with the fact that I was really good at savage flame wars occasionally proved a source of tension. One day, I finally figured out a way to articulate the basic difference, and why I was the way I was. In my teenage years, I got in flame wars on Usenet via a VAX-based system.

Because, you see, there are these moments in the history of our culture where you were either there or you weren't. It's possible these moments are more accurately described as "childhood," but I don't think so. But there are occasional outbreaks of culture that are, in the end, for those who were there and those alone. And prior to about 1996, when AOL made national news for their stunning accomplishment of knocking themselves offline, the Internet was one of those things.

These days, people talk about how those embarassing photos of you drunk that are up on Facebook could harm your reputation. Wusses. You want digital embarrassment, try having a post well-preserved by Google in which you are remarkably well-informed on the subject of whether Lala Ward, the actress who played Romana opposite Tom Baker in seasons seventeen and eighteen of Doctor Who, ever appeared in porn. (Apparently, and I base this purely on my old post, she was conned into appearing in a film that they edited into being porn via a body double.) A post, I should stress, from 1995. When you were 13. (Which, to be fair, is really the ideal age to be obsessed with Doctor Who actresses appearing in porn. Still, not what you want preserved forever. Almost as bad as a blog about video games in which you admit to knowing details of Lala Ward's nude scenes or lack thereof.)

The underlying point here is not just that the Internet changed everything, but that there is such a thing as growing up with the Internet. We've mentioned 1991 before, and stressed its importance. Let's go one better. If you were born early enough and privileged enough that the NES was part of your childhood, then August of 1991 is the single most important month in your entire life. August of 1991 demarcates a fundamental divide in the very fabric of existence. Why?

Three crucial events. On August 23rd, the Super Nintendo launched in North America. Prior to this, for our generation, home video games were NES games. The terms were interchangable. There were systems like the Sega Master System that were cheap knockoffs for people whose parents didn't understand what they were supposed to buy, but anyone with a Sega knew full well that they had a sub-par NES. (It is worth noting that there is a tremendous and complex web of privilege embedded in that summary. To a child of the middle class, class distinctions were not economic, but a matter of parental competence. Those who had lesser video game systems did not have them due to any economic, social, or cultural circumstances. They had them because their mothers were too thick to buy them the right system. It was as simple as that. If any of us were sufficiently clever to realize that there was a strange correspondence between single mothers and kids who owned lesser video gaming systems, we simply assumed the increased workload of being a single parent was what kept them distracted enough that they would screw up such a simple task as "buying a NES.") Eventually things like the Sega Genesis lumbered onto the scene, and for once there was such a thing as someone who didn't have a Nintendo but still had something cool - a period we covered in part way back with Bonk's Adventure. But everyone knew that eventually Nintendo would catch up, and with the SNES they did.

Two days prior to that, a three-day coup was put down in the USSR, ensuring, for all practical purposes, the collapse of the Soviet Union. This too we have dealt with before, so for now let's just say that this marked a fundamental shift in our sense of the end of the world.

And then, on August 6, 1991, Tim Berners-Lee posted to the Usenet group alt.hypertext announcing that he had a nifty project running over at CERN called the World Wide Web that people might want to check out. As it happens, they did, in fact, want to check it out.

I am not arguing that these three events - the SNES, the fall of the USSR, and the World Wide Web - are of equal importance in any absolute sense. (Though if you can find a more eventful set of 17 days in which the events are simultaneously so important and so unrelated, I'm always interested in stretches like that.) But they are of absolute and unwavering importance to anyone whose childhood was defined in part by the NES, because all three of these combined to provide the fundamental moment when the NES Generation gave way to the present. In other words, for anyone who had a NES, August 1991 was the end of childhood. We realized this fact at different times, and I think few of us knew it in 1991 itself, but without a doubt, August of 1991 was when we grew up.

I say all of this because the three games today, taken together, form a triptych depicting that process. Which is odd, as all three games came out before August of 1991. But bear with me here.

At the left of our triptych, in the earliest position, is Fun House. Based on the kids game show of the same name, the game is surprising in its not-badness. It's not a good game as such, but let's face it, we're talking about a game show that I was genuinely surprised to find out wasn't on Nickelodeon. Of course, given that Fun House was obviously a cheap Double Dare knockoff, and Nickelodeon had actual Double Dare, that is less surprising than it might be. To my surprise, that Double Dare entry I linked to is utterly threadbare, so hey, lucky me, I get to expand on this a bit.

The thing about Fun House, as a TV show, was that it depended on the fact that it was pre-Internet. Fun House was entertainment that depended specifically on a low volume of information. Nothing it signified gestured in any way towards a larger world. This is a mode that exists less and less today. These days we take for granted that television exists in a complex and multi-media environment such that the airing of an episode of Glee, for instance, takes place not only at 8pm on Tuesday, but is an event actively foreshadowed by a week of trailers, and by several weeks of spoilers and rumors before that, and that furthermore continues taking place via DVR, iTunes rentals, and DVDs for weeks and months afterwards, further being contextualized by a raft of online discussion, and, of course, the inevitable one week chart-runs of the songs. And Glee, like any major television show in 2011, is written to function in that environment.

The idea, meanwhile, of thinking about an episode of Fun House more than three minutes after it has stopped airing is patently ridiculous. Fun House is a textbook case of the dumb licensed game - a game that has a license only because somebody decided that all games should have licenses, but also decided that paying money for a good license is stupid. So instead we get a game based on a license nobody actually cares about. This is the crucial thing. There is actually no such thing as a Fun House fan. Nowadays, almost every show has fans. The question is really just how often they bathe. But Fun House  doesn't. It was never designed to. It's a form of wholly disposable entertainment. It showed up, in syndication, at arbitrary times during the week, and was watched because it was on, and not unpleasant.

In this regard it is the opposite of Freedom Force, a game that, in modern times, is experienceable almost entirely through its paratext. It's one of the handful of Zapper games to come out besides Duck Hunt. The Zapper is poorly supported on later emulation platforms, making it a tricky game to play. (I was unable to get it working on anything I had access to.) Instead this is a game knowable only through its ghost-like traces. It was not a game aspiring to classic status at the time. Like Fun House, it was disposable, made with no thought whatsoever to its future preservation. And like Fun House, it persists anyway, stretched out and preserved indefinitely. This is what the Internet enables - the preservation of moments without any effort to preserve them. Like my own 13-year-old knowledge of erotica featuring Richard Dawkins's wife, the ability to know this game exists for no clear reason, and indeed in spite of clear reasons. The game is nothing but an 8-bit version of the shooters that still populate dusty corners of most movie theaters and bowling alleys. There is a sense in which the loss of any knowledge is ground for mourning. But it is difficult to argue seriously that if Freedom Force receded fully below the waterline of the River Lethe that the world would be poorer for it.

If Fun House and Freedom Force mark two sides of this divide - the show designed to function in a pre-Internet world, and the game preserved incongruously in a post-Internet world. Then there is Friday the 13th.

The rise of the Internet was a gradual thing, and part of a process. For me, the process began in earnest around 1990, when I got a 286 computer with a CD-ROM drive running GEOS, a GUI skin for DOS that, to my surprise, apparently still exists. With this computer came, over time, a wealth of significant oddities - Prodigy, a proto-ISP offering a vestigial version of the Internet (I still remember my login. EUPD96B), and various CD-ROM reference books, most notably an Encyclopedia or two and Microsoft's Cinemania.

Cinemania is worth looking at as an example of a product that simply no longer exists. It compiled a handful of major books of film reviews - most notably Leonard Maltin's, but also writings from Ebert, Kael, and other major writers, along with stills from movies, a handful of clips, and other such things. What was most interesting about it, to be honest, was its relationship with the forbidden.

Long before Cinemania, I was aware of a band of forbidden movies. I'd go to the supermarket, which was also the video rental store, and peruse movies and games I might want to rent. Friday the 13th was obviously important because there were a gazillion of them, or, at least, eight of them. Seeing no meaningful distinction between a film series there were a lot of and a film series that was good, I assumed Friday the 13th was the latter. My parents, on the other hand, being more or less sensible people, never let me rent them.

You can see where this is going. My computer had a CD with information on thousands of films. So, of course, I fired up Cinemania and learned what there was to learn about the Friday the 13th movies. Forbidden knowledge was mine, all mine. The continuum, of course, stretched from there. It was a multi-year process, certainly. 1991 was not the year of my learning about these forbidden things. More like 1994, 1995, well into the SNES era. But Friday the 13th, as a concept, was part of the forbidden knowledge. There was more, of course. Prodigy had a wealth of fascinating content if one knew where to look.

By Internet standards, of course, looking at summaries of Friday the 13th movies and reading encyclopedia articles about sex is preposterously tame. And Prodigy's fascinating content remained wholly tame compared to what one could get into come 1997 or 1998. (Star Trek: Voyager fanfiction was jaw-droppingly pervy, by the way.) And yet it's the early content that feels formative. The experience of being able to breach the forbidden was, in the end, far more important than the forbidden itself.

And so it is, amusingly, that I have still never seen a Friday the 13th movie, despite remembering a surprising amount about them. I have little desire to. Though they are surely not as bad as the NES game (rightly hailed as one of the worst of the system), I have little doubt they would disappoint. It's not that I think they're (all) bad movies. It's just that there are few other alternatives. Nothing can be as shocking or as impacting as the first thing one looks at illicitly. I never played the game either, I don't think. Or maybe I did, at the house of a friend whose mother paid enough attention to buy a NES, but not enough to buy sane games. It wouldn't have meant much to me, being a wretched game with awkward controls. If I played it, it would have been a few minutes before I walked away, realizing even then that the taboo should remain as sacred as it is profane.

Now we assume access to the illicit, and for that matter assume it doesn't start with anything nearly so tame as Friday the 13th plot summaries. Hell, by today's standards some Star Trek BDSM fanfic is downright wholesome. In my day, access to pictures of boobies was actually something worth coveting. This, more than anything, is what is lost from the NES era. The NES was the last flourishing of a world before nostalgia and before forbidden fruit was in every supermarket. It was the last thing that offered no temptations. The last thing that existed to be forgotten.

Ironically, that, more than anything, is why it is so unforgettable.

1 comment:

  1. Outside of the original Friday the 13th movie, which is really only memorable because of its "jump out of your seat" shock ending, you haven't missed a thing not watching them.