Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I'm Not Paranoid, There Really is a Robot Laying Bombs Trying to Kill Me (Bomberman and Bomberman 2)

My history, taken as a whole, led me to believe that Bomberman was a good game. This turns out, upon further examination, to be false. But what is interesting is that, playing Bomberman, I am not entirely certain that it was not once true that Bomberman was good. This fact interests me, and so I shall blog about it.

The key issue is that there has been, historically, a shift in the nature of video games over time. Because I smoke a lot of Lacan, I will divide video games into two periods for now - the paranoid period, and the obsessional period. The obsessional period is the current period, and its vagaries render games of the paranoid period at times poorly off.

The paranoid period is defined primarily by the physical apparatus on which its video games were played. The major scene of paranoid video games was the arcade. The arcade's currency is quarters. Death exists in an arcade game as a state in which a quarter must be fed to the machine. Because the machine exists to make money, it produces death at an alarming rate. The nadir of this is Gauntlet, which we will come to in time. For now, suffice it to say that the arcade video game exists to inflict repeated wounds as your quarter supply is depleted. Each death is meant to be felt as an actual wound requiring the surrendering of a part of yourself - the product of your labor - into the void of the machine. The countdown to insert more coins serves not only the purpose of resetting the game for the next player, but to enhance the state of fear - to heighten the need to surrender yourself to the machine.

I call these games paranoid because they place the player in constant fear of death, which has material consequences. This contrasts with the current mode, the obsessional game, in which players are asked not to fear death, but to crave the extended doling out of rewards - 100% completion, full sets of XBox Live achievements, etc. The obsessional phase is currently reaching its zenith due to the discovery of how to monetize it via subscription fees or, in the case of cow clickers, sheer dishonesty.

(Time being what it is, the paranoid character remains trapped, the ghost in the discourse, just as the obsessional character sat latent, waiting for the social scene to shift in its favor.)

Remembering the paranoid character of early video games is a key part of understanding a game like Bomberman, in which the game is reasonably fun in that Pac-Man sort of way, except that you keep dying. Like, to an awkward degree that Pac-Man only aspires to. In Pac-Man, death is usually a sort of slow deflation. You catch a bad break and end up in the corner with the ghosts. You pivot and evade two, but one wings around and ends up face to face with you. You duck left, but mistime it and whack the ghost. The end.

Whereas in Bomberman, your own weapons kill you, and thus the more powerful your weapons get, the more they kill you. This means that death, although it is still demonstrably a case of user error, tends to come with frustrating rapidity. This dynamic survives less well into the era of neurotic gaming than the Pac-Man mechanic, and thus a game that was deservedly a classic in 1983 is... somewhat less so at the present juncture.

To be fair, however, it is neither Bomberman's single-player aspects nor Bomberman 1 that earn the series fame as such. Rather, it is the multiplayer aspects which debuted in Bomberman 2. In another fundamental technological shift that forever altered the nature of video games, startingm essentially with the Nintendo 64, the default number of controller ports on a console system jumped from 2 to 4 (although Sony lagged a generation behind on this transition). It is difficult to over-emphasize how fundamental this seemingly small change was. In essence, this change enabled an entirely new model of video gaming - social gaming.

(Social gaming is fundamentally obsessional, because it is based not on the need to avoid punishment but on the mad quest for the unobtainable Other. I discussed this in brief when talking about Blades of Steel. To extend the argument slightly further, because social gaming eliminates the idea of a permanent end objective [rescue the princess] in favor of an endlessly receding one [dominion over the subjectivity of the Other], the fantasy is not avoiding death, but rather an unfulfillable completion. With Bomberman, the goal is to play forever. With Bomberman 2, the goal is to stop playing.)

But as is often the case with a technological shift, it is not that the four controller slots opened a new mode of gameplay so much as that they shifted the default nature of games to cover that which had previously been marginal. Arcades had long had four-player options. But more to the point, so did console games, via a device called a multitap. For the Nintendo, the relevant device is the NES Four Score. Bomberman 2, notably, took advantage of this device to create a three player mode that is much more remembered, in part because it's pretty good, and in part because it was pretty novel for the NES.

Where playing Bomberman 2 in single player mode is a case of playing a paranoid game in an obsessional world, playing it multiplayer is a case of playing an obsessional game released into a paranoid world in an obsessional world. That is, it is an inadvertent instance of retro-futurism.

But this pleasure is just as inaccessible as the paranoid pleasure. Because the nature of an obsessional pleasure in a paranoid world is its illicit nature - the fact that Bomberman 2 is a niche game that requires obscure peripherals to enjoy. As a mainstream pleasure, it is merely adequate. So as a game whose time has come, its time has long passed.