Friday, May 21, 2010

Mercury Shooting Through Every Degree (Battle of Olympus and Battleship)

Exploration is a paradoxical goal for a video game. Indeed, it is a paradoxical goal in general - after all, it's not so much a thin line as no line whatsoever between exploration and being lost.

I spent the evening having dinner with a dear friend I shall not see again before I move. It was to be a longer hanging out, but packing has me exhausted, and I simply was not up for more than a bite to eat. I was about to drive home, but my wrists took me elsewhere, and I found myself in a Starbucks reading Julie Powell's latest, Cleaving, about which I doubt we will see a movie. Julie and Julia was the inspiration for this project, not because it was a great book, but because it was a good book, a solid book, and a foundation for my own mad ideas.

Cleaving is a good book. You can tell by the fact that nobody likes it on Amazon. No, I'm serious. Where Julie and Julia was a fun life-affirming romp about cooking French food, Cleaving is as dark as you'd expect a book about butchery to be. It is a book about adultery, possibly about the dissolution of a marriage (I've not finished it yet), about borderline alcoholism, certainly about obsession, and about a woman who finds a strange solace from it all in dismembering dead animals. It's dark, strange, idiosyncratic, and personal in a way the cheery performativity of Julie and Julia can only hope to be. I love it far, far more.

Sitting in Starbucks, a place that served as a happy treat for a year or so of marriage, then as a refuge for half a year of splitsville, then as an indulgence/convenience for half a year of owning a super-automatic espresso maker, reading a book that falls firmly and cheerily into one of my vice genres (Clever semi-chick-lit confessional non-fiction. The other is procedural thrillers), I felt something approaching contentment.

All moves are into the unknown. I'll be living across the street from the house I grew up in. Third grade through my third and final year of high school. Eight years, plus a decade and one of where I returned to on summers and Christmases. Home, as they say. Yes, my own place, but it will be trivial for my parents to bother me, and only my mother's deep vampiric tendencies with regards to the outdoors are likely to prevent drop-ins.

But I'm surging forth into unemployment, not having local friends, and the future in general. It's a blind stab. In an alternate universe, where I write the Packaging Project, today's post is about the austere unknowability of masses of brown cardboard boxes containing one's worldly possessions. But this is the video gaming blog, so instead we have The Battle of Olympus, a game in the classic NES "wander around trying to figure out what the fuck you're doing" tradition. Which, actually, is just as good a metaphor as boxes.

What distinguishes the NES era of these exploration-style games from their modern counterparts is that in contemporary games, people have basically learned the virtues of actually leading the player around so they have some idea of where to go next and what they're trying to do. In the NES era, you tended to get a sword and and a starting village with no useful equipment and be expected to figure things out for yourself. This is, by and large, considerably less fun than the alternative "have a clue what you're doing" approach, but it does make it a perfectly good metaphor for plowing into the future.

It is difficult to stress the degree to which failing to find a job after 11 years of higher education is just a depressing outcome. Because it really is. And so I don't know if what I'm doing now is returning home, moving forward, going back, or standing still. I've no idea. There's no map. It's actually worse than Battle for Olympus, which at least places helpful NPCs here and there to tell you that you're not strong enough to go a given direction yet. Such NPCs are rarely found in reality.

Battleship provides a different metaphor for exploration. For one thing, the exploration is heavily directed. For another thing, there are explosions. For a third, and this is perhaps the most significant change, a system of mutual interpolation is added to the mix. As you explore, you are also explored. There is a metaphor for sex here. I am not taking it. (Except inasmuch as I just did). But here, the act of exploration turns dark and destructive - a destruction that is turned inward and outward at the same time. Make no mistake - Battleship is self-destructive, because to sustain the game through your own explorations is to submit to attack. As long as one plays, one is in danger. To learn the terrain of the other one must risk being unmade.

This is perhaps the best metaphor yet for moving. To find the future, we must unmake ourselves, split all that we own into boxes. To know the future, we must sift through the past, throw things out, seal things up. There is no moving on without sinking our battleship.

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