Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Daisies Break Their Fetters (Big Bird's Hide and Speak)

An oft unremarked upon aspect of the famed RCA Dog is that its fundamental concept of the image is that the dog is entranced specifically by the sound of his dead master's voice coming through the gramophone. The game today is Big Bird's Hide and Speak, and as you can see, we're setting up for a cheery little number.

Caroll Spinney, the voice of Big Bird, is well past the life expectancy for an American male. Despite this, he still both wears the quite large Big Bird suit and provides the voice for Oscar the Grouch, which, he claims, is actually the harder character to perform. Nevertheless, and I am
not the first to note this, the very real fact is that Caroll Spinney is going to die, and this event will most likely occur in the relatively near future.

Big Bird's Hide and Speak contains what is a surprisingly good rendition of Big Bird's voice for an 8-bit video game. The rendition is skillful enough to form a major part of the game's presentation, as it explicitly credits Spinney as providing the voice of Big Bird in the game. I am not privy to the technical details - I do not know how much the voice is in fact based on actual recordings of Spinney. Let us, however, assume that the game is as presented, and in fact it is one of the earliest games to use actual sound recordings of people. (Is it perhaps the first? I assume not, but I've no particular proof for this assertion)

The core concept of the RCA Dog is that the phonograph is a physical remnant of his master's life. That is, ther eis a specific uncanny artifact that the dog peers puzzledly at. But Big Bird's Hide and Speak differs in two regards. First, it is functionally infinitely copied. Because NES games have been reduced to transmissible ROM files of relatively small size, they have been decoupled from physical media and physical devices upon which they can be played. A reasonably large number of people have downloaded or copied the ROM file, and it can be played on dozens of different systems. For my part, I have no fewer than four devices capable of playing Big Bird's Hide and Seek right now, and I'm pretty sure I've got about eight more on which it could be installed with a touch of jiggery pokery.

This is distinct from fetters. For me, there are two fetters of Caroll Spinney worth remarking upon. The first is Big Bird’s Red Book, a Little Golden Book in which Big Bird fretted about where he put the red thing he was going to show the reader, as various other red things whiz about. Eventually, he sits down on a paper bag and crushes the tomatoes he was going to show the reader. I liked tomatoes. (See also
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes)

The other is the
Electronic Talk ‘n Play, which I affectionately remember as the Big Bird Computer. It was a tape player with four colored buttons and specially made four-track tapes that would change tracks depending on which button you pressed, allowing the tapes to pose interactive puzzles and games. The best of the set was Grover’s Don’t Push the Red Button, in which Grover implores you not to push the red button, and you, no doubt, push it anyway, you bastard.

I have neither of these fetters anymore. I looked, yesterday, for Big Bird's Red Book at the town book sale. It was not there. Nor was the best of the Sesame Street Little Golden Books, The Monster at the End of this Book, a book notable for many things, including having one of the best examples of Wikipedia prose as art in its article, which describes it drolly as "a post-modern children's book." They did have the pointless sequel, Another Monster at the End of this Book, which Wikipedia notes features the "ubiquitous Elmo." The Big Bird Computer is as abandoned as the cassette medium it depended on. These things pass not into history but into the awkwardness of memory - the fetters are irretrievable.

Big Bird's Hide and Speak is different. As opposed to being bound up in a fetter, this element of childhood is spread vastly, transmitted throughout the Internet, perfectly iterated, undistorted by the vagaries of memory. Big Bird's Hide and Speak perfectly preserves this voice, ironically squawking the now impossible commands - find Grover. Find Elmo. And perhaps most tragically, find Ernie. Poor Ernie, the Muppet most marked by death following death of Jim Henson. There are, in my childhood, few celebrity deaths I have any sense of. Jim Henson and Roald Dahl are the only two that spring to mind. Jim Henson's death was, of course, marked with one of the greatest Muppet specials of all time, with the heartbreaking moment of the Muppets looking down and realizing that there are people down there... but one of them is missing.

As all of these things, Spinney included, pass to history and memory, Spinney's voice is perfectly preserved, compelling us to find what is lost. With the rise of wireless transmission and networking, packets of Caroll Spinney's voice whiz around, past, and through us. A waste transmission, mis-aimed, spreads upwards, outwards into space, a whisp of noise floating out towrds the edges of creation. Right now, my body may be permeated, run straight through with the voice of Caroll Spinney.

Our childhood, then, is well preserved. But this preservation is contingent on our continual storage and transmission of the data. A fetter is mildly self-preserving - indeed, through something approximating random chance, we have what we now call the history of the Western world. But this ghost is preserved only by our own transmissions and receptions of it. Perhaps Spinney lives forever, transmitted in wave form out into space, but this wave is always ahead of us - the signal cannot be caught up with. Spinney is immortal for everybody but us - we depend on the continual transmission of the signal.

The tragedy here is that the moment of this ghost has already passed. The game is a preposterously simple game consisting of selecting among four windows to spell words, identify characters, et cetera. All four directional buttons simply move clockwise around the windows. A and B do the exact same thing - select the current window. Start and Select also do the same thing - exit and let you pick a new minigame to play. It is a game that one grows out of exceedingly quickly. On top of that, it is, like all Nintendo games, a matter of archeology - an experience that belongs distinctly to another time.

Caroll Spinney has outlived his own ghost. Were it that he could outlive childhood.

1 comment:

  1. ...and hidden here, among the ruins of a neglected blog, is one of the weirdest, coolest, most Sandiferian things ever composed by man.