Monday, September 27, 2010

Marshall McLuhan Would Think This Entry is Cool (Clash at Demonhead and Classic Concentration)

Clash at Demonhead is not so much a classic game as it is directly referenced in Scott Pilgrim, which is sort of the same thing, but not really. As a game, it's got some distinctly interesting elements - a semi-open-ended level structure, a lot of exploration, a giant flying skeleton man with a wickedly cool scarf. Which probably means it's more interesting to talk about it in terms of Scott Pilgrim.

Scott Pilgrim is one of a handful of major works to embrace the 8-bit video gaming generation that this blog meanders around. The result is thrilling - a tour de force that is rightly considered one of the top graphic novels of the last decade. The comic is, in essence, a story about a 20something who grew up on NES games actually growing up, though, satisfyingly, not in a way that involves rejecting his past. So the comic interprets things like jealousy, learning to function in a relationship, and the vagaries of memory in terms of 8-bit video games.

It's cute. If you look at it right, it's the thing in the world most similar to the Nintendo Project. If I have one complaint, it is that it is a bit too credulous about the idea that video games are good. It embraces the triumphant and visceral thrill of a good game (Sex Bob-Omb is very possibly the greatest possible take on the excitement that was successfully built up about the introduction of the Bob-Omb as a new monster, and the associated training this experience gave a generation about the sacred feminine). But it does not quite embrace the stultifying, irritating stupidity of a bad game. In the end, it commits the same fallacy of memory that it observes in its protagonist: it reduces the past to the good bits.

But what interests me here is its particular foregrounding of Clash at Demonhead - a reference that is considerably more obscure than is bread and butter for Scott Pilgrim. Why pick a relatively arcane video game reference here? What relationship exists between Envy Adams and this game that is, charitably, a minor classic? The answer to this question constitutes the primary theme of today's entry.

This question bears a formal resemblance to the central question of the game Classic Concentration, which is "where's the other thing that looks like this." The two, on a purely semantic level, do not resemble each other particularly, but in truth they are specific cases of the same general question, which is the question of matching. The comparison of Envy Adams to Clash of the Demonhead evaluates two items to try to identify a match, whereas the main move of Classic Concentration is to attempt to find an object that completes a match.

This is an essential feature of human reason. Arguments proceed by finding points of confluence and similarity. We're back at "What's that?" (We've always been here. A stationary vantage point around which things move produces the illusion of movement.) But here we have a different question - how many identifications are necessary to produce knowledge? Again, Classic Concentration proves a surprisingly apt metaphor here. The game proceeds through a standard card matching memory game. If you can find two cards that match, you get to go again.

In the NES version, the content of the matches becomes wholly irrelevant. The game mimics the game show it's named after, and matches retain the prizes from TV - a spa trip, a piano, a TV, or a VCR. The player will never receive these prizes. They are empty placeholders. Mere steps along a larger goal. Likewise, the process of identifying pairs is not an end in and of itself. It is not sufficient to observe the pairing of Envy Adams and Clash at Demonhead. One must find more points to formulate an argument.

In Classic Concentration, as matches are made, a rebus is uncovered. The game is won by solving the rebus. Again, the metaphor is apt. The matches serve as steps towards identifying some other object. One does not need to uncover all the matches to win. One needs to get enough of an understanding of the image that one can fill the rest in. Exhaustive research is not necessary.

So it is not sufficient to observe the pairing of Envy Adams and Clash at Demonhead. But it is, on the other hand, not necessary to exhaustively solve all aspects of the puzzle. Something can be left undone. Somewhere along this continuum is the moment of communication. A mythical balance point where the exact minimum amount of information necessary is offered. The benefits of this sweet spot are many. For one, it maximizes the involvement of the reader. Because the reader must fill in gaps, the reader invests herself in the work. This investment is a fundamental human pleasure - it's what underlies puzzle solving as a form of entertainment. A puzzle, after all, is just a communication calibrated perfectly for that sweet spot - something that gives the reader just enough to complete the puzzle.

For another, it is efficient for the writer. It minimizes my work. This is to my advantage. Concentration has never been my specialty. I mean this both in that I have only a moderately good memory, and thus suck at the game, and in that I'm an ADD lunatic who's work method essentially amounts to "do a sufficiently large number of stuff so that all the distractions are still productive." Or, occasionally, "caffeinate heavily, and stay up as late as it takes," because staying up all night is much like actually paying attention. In a pinch, I fall back to plan C, which is "hope you don't actually need an infinite number of monkeys." (Information takes on a fractal structure. What is the bare minimum number of monkeys necessary to produce my communication?)

Except, of course, that the tipping point is hard to find. As the joke goes, I apologize for writing such a long blog entry, but I did not have time to write a short one. The issue of concentration and attention is actually relatively subtle, not well-represented by a line, which is, of course, a simplistic construction built out of two points, when in fact the reality is likely considerably more complex. In essence, we have attempted to solve the puzzle too soon - with insufficient data. We've filled in blanks less with reason than with pure guesswork. In actuality, reaching that magical point of minimum information is really hard. We need more matches.

Some days I have that in me. Other days, I want to give up on producing art and go back to the loves that motivate this. Why am I writing a blog when I could just be goofing off playing video games? Clash at Demonhead deserved more than the half hour I gave it. It's a good game. But because it is classified as "fun," it has to take a backseat to "work" like this blog, grading, preparing for class, etc. This is ridiculous.

Perhaps, then, other goals should be considered. Why fetishize the moment of comprehension. What if instead we go a step back. Come to the brink of comprehension - that moment of communication, then delete one key piece of information. Leave one crucial match unfound or unexplained. Then deliver the end product to the reader. The reader would come close to understanding. Fill in much of the rebus. Make much sense of it. But they would fall just short. They wouldn't quite be able to resolve the pieces. There would be one irreducible, unsolvable mystery. Tantalizingly close to a solution. Would this be art?

Do we know enough to say?


  1. a giant skeleton man with a scarf is always a winner in my book!

  2. I guess this is a classic I just missed...Just like the comic in question.


  4. The HVGN (Happy Video Game Nerd) did a review on this title. I would DEFINELTY check it out on youtube if you havn't seen/played this game yet.

    Interested in Halo: Reach?

    Check out my blog:

    Update Challenges, cR glitches, XBL status, and general gaming news.

    I will be keeping an eye on this blog. Very interesting.

  5. Congratulations for being a blog of note! Come visit me at my two blogs if you like. A Camp Host Housewife's Meandering: An RV Adventure and Levonne's Pretty Pics.

  6. Sadly, "Crash 'n the Boys" comes up too soon for you to reference SP again.

    When I was younger, I saw an episode of Classic Concentration where the prize listed was "His & Hers Matching Hamhocks". Alex Trebek noted that he was fairly sure the prize was actually hammocks.

  7. Why don`t show latest nintendo games!

  8. I have a blog called Nintendo Blog.

  9. As I continue to catch up on these, I'm becoming somewhat disheartened by the comments. Although your goal seems much closer to introspection than mass appeal, I don't think I could help but feel alienated by a lot of these. Please know that I am enjoying reading your entries on a lot of different levels.

    I'm glad you mentioned the prizes on Concentration. There were a few other NES games adapted from gameshows that featured this same odd caveat - what do you reward winning players with in a time before unlockables/achievements became the standard?

    A progression past the paranoid age, as you defined it, but not quite to the obsessive...this strange middle ground where abstract memories become the most tangible takeaway. Although their solution, these virtual prize placeholders, was wholly unoriginal I still have many fond memories of attempting to win a 'brand new kitchen' for my grandmother.

    Regarding Clash At Demonhead, I've caught myself defending it a few times since Scott Pilgrim was released - most people in my circle are aware of the reference but seem to view it more as "funny that they would name the band after a crappy NES game no one played." There's a certain bizarre charm to the game that I can't easily explain, but in the back of my mind I always think I'm overselling it.