Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Fnord (Cabal, Caesar's Palace, California Games)

Three games for today, all straightforward. I reckon I should be able to get through them easily and perhaps without excessive rhetorical embellishment. After all, I should tone things down, get a few readers back before I start trying to advertise the site. Except the first game already screws me up. Cabal, it's called. I'd never heard of it. As far as I know, there is no Cabal. Best start with the second - Caesar's Palace. A casino game. Nice and easy. Work up to the weird stuff.

Of course, if you stop to think about it, Caesar's Palace is kind of a weird game. While, in Vegas, the house always wins, there's the comforting fiction that it's just dumb luck. Cards fall as they will. There are exceptions - video poker is a particularly cruel invention, given that the probabilities and strategies of a poker hand assume a genuine randomness one can never really know a machine offers. But NES gambling? The video poker problem ends up across the board. The computer can opt to bust you at Blackjack any time you take a card, and can always squeak by you if you stay. Computer slots are on no firmer ground, and the perverse recursion of computer video poker is enough to make anyone blush.

Suddenly the idea that the house always wins becomes a tad more terrifying as the house takes physical form. Now instead of playing our luck, we're playing a game we can't quite tell the rules of against a minor god who picks if we win or lose at will. No more luck, but now appeasement, a desperate attempt to charm our way out of interaction with this mysterious overlord.

Never mind. I think I liked Cabal better. Except the root of "Cabal" is in fact the Kabbalah - the ancient Jewish mystic tradition that I'll stop mentioning just as soon as it stops being relevant. In general terms, it means a secret group running things - a conspiracy theory. In short, the house that always wins. Well shit. Guess there's no way but through.

So, cabals. To be fair, sometimes they're real - most notably the so-called Backbone Cabal, a group of system administrators in the 1980s who pushed through a massive renaming of Usenet groups while simultaneously denying their activities with the classic and now much repeated "There is no cabal." More recently, it was an excuse for various vandals and trolls on Wikipedia, who claimed that they were fighting against a "cabal" of administrators who were conspiring against them. Ironically, administrators retreated to the same old "There is no Cabal" declaration, though in this case, truth be told, no cabal actually existed.

The joke of "There is no Cabal" is not merely that any cabal would deny its existence, although that is certainly part of it. It is also that the nature of a cabal is that it is always on the edge of perception. A cabal can only be seen by its effects - the trail of influence it leaves behind. We can never quite pin down the cabal, and that is, of course, the point.

The cabal is a defect of human experience - inevitable and irreducible. Humans are very good at filling in patterns. It's one of our primary evolutionary advantages. Video games thrive on this theory. A level of a video game, at its core, is just a pattern developed and subtly varied. The pattern is there so the player can make flash decisions - know how to dodge attacks and where to jump. An experienced video game player learns to anticipate where surprise attacks are likely to be, what sorts of jumps are going to be required, etc. The variations are so that players still die. An entire line of comedic video games exists that take classic games and rework their level structure to be cruel - variations on Super Mario Bros where the normal route that players know by heart is repeatedly fatal.

The cabal, then, is the sort of overflow pattern. All the oddities that accrue in a system, that do not appear to be the product of any known pattern, must therefore be part of an unknown pattern. In short, the cabal is the pattern comprised of everything that doesn't fit into a pattern. This is a dangerous idea, based inevitably on enormously dodgy supposition. Inevitably, there's going to be a wave of false signal regarding the cabal - misrecognitions and misidentifications will necessarily abound. Most identifications of the cabal will be wrong. "There is no cabal" is thus not entirely untrue - there's certainly not the cabal we're talking about. There's some other cabal. And it delights to have you misidentify it so.

In gaming terms, Cabal is a guerilla warfare game in which you must rely on meager cover to ambush and destroy a wave of enemy fighters. It's one of those solidly not-bad games for the NES. But its existence gets at a major concept worth discussing - war. War is the sort of thing the concept of the cabal was designed to deal with. Wars are the ultimate demonstration of the Marxist axiom that the worker is alienated from the product of their labor. The worker in war is engaged in a task of savage arbitrariness. They kill and die on behalf of vast geopolitical principles they themselves have no measurable role in shaping. Indeed, the nature of war requires that they be stripped of the very notion of themselves - filed down to name, rank, and serial number, pressed into a chain of command rewarding obedience to the deliberately arbitrary structures of power, the individual becomes GI - government issued, a piece of equipment that happens to be fleshy. Hooah.

The cabal displaces the materiality of authority. Why do we do it this way? Because of some rule that is over there - not my rule. Not his rule. Their rule. There is no cabal, and that is why we cannot question their orders. This is the true troubling nature of war crimes - why they disturb us so. It is not because we are troubled by the idea of monstrosity. Far from it, the lone madman is easy enough to grasp. But a war crime requires that the entire sociopolitical system, in its capacity as cabal, create monstrosity. There is no party responsible. No amount of arrests and prosecutions catches the culprits. The classic Nuremberg defense - "I was only following orders," is flawed, not because, as the response goes, you could have said no. It is false because the very structure of military action denies Cartesian existence. I obey, therefore I am not. Orders were followed - not by me, but by themselves, by a savage tautology armed to the fucking teeth. That's cabalism.

The fantasy that there is no cabal exemplifies the American cowboy ideology, which, in this context, turns into the Army of One. This figure is America's great export to the world, the great anarchic glory of the individual. When the classic comics magazine 2000 AD launched in England, its lead story was Invasion!, featuring the lone and wild Bill Savage single-handedly fighting to liberate Britain from Volgan occupation, armed only with his trusty shotgun. A similar concept drives Cabal, and indeed all war video games.

So let's ask the obvious question - why is Cabal, a game ostensibly about an Army of One, named after the vast amorphous forces that run the world? A mystery. Let's hazard a guess. I've long since rejected Occam's Razor and grown out my beard, so let's skip straight to the good stuff. What if Cabal is named that as a savvy interpretive commentary on the nature of the myth it promotes. That is, what if Cabal is warning us that the Army of One is in fact just another tool of the Cabal? It makes sense - the impossibility of a one man siege against the Volgan occupation rapidly opens the question, who benefits from the lie that we might fight them? The answer, of course, is whoever sent him to fight. It is no accident that George W. Bush, great cowboy President, used the rhetoric of freedom and the image of the Army of One to justify strengthening the apparatus of the state. It is no accident that the Tea Party screams freedom in defense of consolidating wealth. Look how well it works - people demanding to keep government out of their Medicare.

Indeed, 2000 AD may have started with Bill Savage, but it quickly found its main feature elsewhere - square jawed, visored Judge Dredd, the fusion of the two narratives, unkillable Army of One defending the shadowy police state. The strip reached its artistic zenith when it became all too clear - Judge Dredd was the bad guy in his own strip.

The theme echoes elsewhere. Alan Moore's sick depiction of Rorschach in Watchmen - he is manifestly not the hero of the story, and the ending in which his journal is nearly found and published is far from comforting. This one's a misstep Moore spends the rest of his career atoning for - nobody gets the point. Everybody roots for Rorschach, just like they miss his equation of Batman and The Joker in Batman: The Killing Joke, taking up the crippling of Barbara Gordon not as a warning sign about the insane ethics of the character, but as a model to follow. The insanity of it drives Moore to occultism. Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, where the Army of One is a decrepit screwup, leaving us rooting desperately for him not to engage in masculine heroics. The film's an exact mirror of his previous film, The Fountain, where the Army of One triumphantly abandons self, merging with the cosmos in a sweet orgasm of death. Trent Reznor's Year Zero, with accompanying ARG that leaves off suddenly and unnervingly, an audience unsure of what, exactly, they are meant to do. The game leads the audience through a wonderfully paranoid set of manipulations - USB flash drives left in bathrooms with song demos containing noise bursts whose waveforms present images, point to websites in a thick, paranoid maze. Its climactic event - a surprise Nine Inch Nails concert for those who followed the clues to a location and time that is suddenly broken up by fake police. The rest is a silence the listener awkwardly fills in, left in the paranoid state.

It's a nice hypothesis with a cataclysmic flaw - it relies itself on a cabal of artists pitching tents of resistance in the world. Of course, this is no less probable than one or several cabals of government running the world, diverting for their convenience the flows of capital. Once we know to look for it, we can see evidence of it everywhere. Nine Inch Nails's The Downward Spiral features a repeated keyboard motif that appears again, over a decade later, in Aronofsky's The Fountain, a film about Mayan death imagery. The implication is clear - death is the road to awe. A transformation of consciousness. The eschaton, placed in popular renditions of Mayan myth as 2012. This date is central to Grant Morrison's The Invisibles, which brings us to the great magical rivalry of British comics, Grant Morrison and Alan Moore. In Morrison's telling, Moore was so repulsed by his own work on Watchmen (a comic Morrison has little respect for) that he has spent the latter part of his career trying to be Grant Morrison. Moore's side of the debate doesn't exist - he's got no reason to fight back against a meddlesome pop magician. The slacker extravagances of Morrison have no place in Moore's narrative. With no evidence of a conspiracy between them save their interconnecting circles, our eyes glance over the truth, fooled into thinking our usual refrain: There is no cabal.

But if the hidden depths of counter culture carry a hulking nuclear submarine of pure idea waiting to blast the current epoch into a richly deserved oblivion, a simple game like California Games takes on an almost mythic stature. Its depiction of skateboarding and foot bag competitions in search of a champion leads inexorably towards the image of the enlightened foot bagger, crossing legs into the fylfot cross of the Tarot's Hanged Man, projecting forth a mystical aura, PCH Buddha Extraordinare. As soon as we speak the words, another image follows inexorably, the previously unknown final form of the Buddha, not laughing or reclining, no the gaming buddha performing the thumbdance of enlightenment, clicking out silently sigil after sigil, conducting the world fed only off the Dew of his holy Mountain. This is the logic that leads Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg to stare down the Pentagon, chanting imagined Tibetan evocations madly to lift that building off its foundation.

There's still a problem here. What sort of artists cabal as this would exclude us, the weary children of the Famicom? Our refrain becomes more desperate suddenly. There is no cabal. There cannot be a cabal. Because the alternative is more horrifying - there is a cabal that we are not enlightened enough to join. Despite our holiness, we are too profane to run the world.

Unable to deal with a horror so fundamental as this, we retreat from the dizzying realms of inference and theory that enable such absurdities. We return to grounded reality, well aware, at last, having evaluated the options, that there definitely is no cabal.

Meanwhile, at that seedy hole in the wall venue down the street, the crowd settles in. Tonight is Trent Reznor providing a musical background for a seance conducted by Alan Moore to summon the ghost of Alan Ginsberg, who will read from the archetypal ideal of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and tell of his adventures through the lands of myth with Abbie Hoffman, now ascended to yet another plane of being, to obtain it. Darren Aronofsky is filming the event for posterity, but they don't want to start until the audience is all here, so they're killing time playing improv poker, like video poker with actors instead of machines. Grant Morrison's won big with his straight consisting of The Wheel of Fortune through Temperance. But where's the last guest? Didn't you see the invitation, printed clearly with the secret password to enter? Four simple words, and the door would open for you, let you in, and they could start. It's on all of their lips, the simple refrain of their dizzying orgies, "There is no cabal." "There is no cabal." "There is no cabal."


  1. The Cabal will not be televised.

  2. To the contrary, the cabal is televised on every single station you are not presently watching.