Saturday, August 28, 2010

These Colors Make My Eyes Hurt (Bump 'n' Jump, Burai Fighter, Burgertime)

Lev Manovich famously argues that it is a mistake to call what is broadly defined as "new media" interactive. His argument is that to read these objects as interactive is to mistake their structure for the structure of our own mind. Games play us back. I've spoken about this before.

Bump 'n Jump exemplifies this logic - a closed course car game that leaves the player with two choices. It's a fine feat of titling. One bumps (the other cars) and jumps (the pits of water). That's what you've got. This isn't interaction, but a closed circuit. The player exists merely to complete the lines. To choose between bumping and jumping. No other part of the player matters. The game hollows you out, reduces you to the familiar dance of fingers on controller.

There's a dualism here, or perhaps within me. On the one hand, these games are pathways along which I can attain some higher state of being, fuse disparate strands of culture and history into a thought golem of myself. On the other, our first theme - video game as narcosis. We could take the easy hypothesis - when I'm in a good mood, I'm a free-ranging new media mystic. When I'm in a bad mood, video games are a sprawling mode of depression.

But just because I'm a moody brat doesn't mean I'm not right. Narcosis and meditation are two sides of one story. The elimination of self is not an idle activity for the weekend warrior. It's an obvious statement, but one often overlooked - Enlightenment is the process of carving your very being away. It's not that depression fuels art. It's that depression is the result of art. The ground that's left behind as figure is torn away and sent into the world. Language and speech are self-mutilatory processes. Formless intention gives way to the materiality of utterance, and something of ourself is lost. What replaces it?

Existentialism is here the welcome relief from a world defined otherwise by the solitary contemplation of self. This fundamental notion of encounter fills the void left by speech. The Other is a mercy. Its speech fills up the voids left by ours. It is an uneasy union, endlessly in flux. The tide of speech flows in until we can bear no more, and with a word we turn it back, momentarily secure in our role as Subject. It is but a moment. As soon as the air vibrates something of the moment is lost. A sentence deflates us. A paragraph leaves us broken upon the ground, a hollow shell. But the sweet mother tongue is there to replenish us. And so on. And so forth.

Burai Fighter is a shooter with a twist. The problem is that the twist renders the game unplayable. Burai Fighter allows you to shoot in all eight directions. But that necessitates that you move in those directions. Levels scroll primarily left to right, meaning that to pick a target, you move up and down. While you're moving up and down? You don't shoot right. Which is to say, it's a shooter where you cannot simultaneously position yourself and attack. This renders the game preposterously difficult. You can simply autofire in one direction and move freely, but it's inaccurate to say this substantially helps matters, in no small part because the firing sound, playing on an endless loop, will rapidly drive you mad.

One never quite settles into the rhythm here. Hesitation is fatal in shooters, but the strangeness of the control scheme necessitates it. One might say the result is death, but let's excavate this one a little further. It is not as though mystical union does not end in death as well. No. The price of faltering conversation is worse - a choking off. I stop my part of the conversation, expecting the mother tongue to take me into her arms and save me. Instead there is silence. Have I missed my line? Am I off the beat, or are you? Do I have any choice but to speak again? What is left but prayer? The only prayer, in the end, anyone ever offers - "Answer me, you bastard."

The din of my thoughts is too loud. Everything shudders with mystic significance. I am flying too close to the sun and I know it. The creaking floorboards of this strange old house make for poor conversation. I need to stop this. I'm running out of self to carve away. The turn to art and things of beauty only lasts one for so long. In a world of faltering conversation, where am I to find the beauty of the soul?

And yet there is so much left unsaid. A thesis on materialism I am too tired to phrase. An entry on Tetris that will be forgotten by the time I get to the game. A confession so all-encompassing that it would finally wash me clean of all that remains of me, leaving me too absent to press "Publish Post." I should sleep, but to do so is to foresake this moment forever, to forever lose the things I could say if only the mother tongue would at last embrace me. Why do you insist on your interiority? There are worlds enough inside of me for you. If only you'd stop existing for me, we could turn back the evil of the world, educate the masses, end war, end suffering, turn from politics at last to aesthetics, abandoning the art of the possible for the art of the impossible. This is all your fault. Why can't you see that I understand?

I'm sorry. I've spoken out of turn again. A fatal mistake. How about if I lose a life and we call it even? What was next to speak of? Ah yes. Burgertime.

A standard sort of Marxist parable cum video game, you are here a chef with several problems. First and perhaps foremost, you are at best 1/4 of the size of the burgers you make. Second, you are under constant attack by semi-sentient animate foodstuffs. Third, you are going to be shut down in seconds if the health department ever discovers that your cooking style involves walking across all of your ingredients.

It's not a great game, but it just sneaks in as a good game. And perhaps more importantly, it has the sort of sublime weirdness that dots the landscape of this chronography. I was all set to hate the game, but one more trip through it to check something proved surprisingly fun. Before I knew it, I was actually ready for sleep. There is some measure of peace. Was the mother tongue a weird hamburger video game all along? Wrapped in the embrace of encounter again, the question mercifully loses its meaning.

Why video games? Why base this hopeless project on death-obsessed electronics? The video game is no different from flesh. In the final moment, the game is always off. The avatar is always dead. But on the other hand, the push of a button pierces the darkness with the small red glow of the power light. Even in death, there is the possibility of resurrection. This is the secret of video games: There is always another life after this one.


  1. You could also turn to neurosciences, allowing you to discover that life isn't as mystical and spiritual as existentialism would like you to believe, and yet isn't any less fascinating.

  2. You say this as though the neurosciences are not mystical and spiritual.