Saturday, September 25, 2010

We Built it Just for You (Circus Caper and City Connection)

As primal fears go, clowns are an odd one, mostly because they're profoundly non-primal. While things like the dark, falls, being buried alive, and abandonment are quite literally primal, existing the moment we crawled out of the sea, clowns did not. Clowns, although they have their antecedents, are a profoundly modern development. One does not hear of people with searing fears of Commedia Dell'arte. Although Wikipedia claims Ute mythology has a cannibalistic clown monster called the Siat, but quite frankly, I think it's lying. Clowns are not primal. Which is odd, considering the sheer level of terror they produce.

Circus Caper ties straight into this fear. A flagrant rip-off of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, a boy and a girl go to the circus, the girl is kidnapped, and the boy has to punch a bunch of evil circus men to rescue her.

It's awful. The usual lazy awfulness of a bad NES game. Not even funny awful. Just bad. Awkward controls, absurd difficulty, unforgiving continues, it does the full set of shitty NES tricks. Which is as good a time as any to reflect on what makes really bad games bad. (Video games are unlike families. With video games, bad ones are all alike, and good ones are each unique.)

(This may not be the first time we have elaborated upon this. That's OK. The Nintendo Project is not linear. Eventually I will revise the earliest entries, written before I understood how to write the Nintendo Project, incorporating thought from the end of the Project forward, so that the Nintendo Project becomes a secret history of itself, finished not because it has reached an end, but because it has become an Ouroboros, consuming its own starting point. In his introduction to Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire, Neil Gaiman quotes Alan Moore quoting Charles Fort: One measures a circle starting anywhere.)

Generally speaking, bad video games are bad for one of two reasons: either they behave with tedious predictability, or they are excessively difficult to predict. The former charge is the one leveled against casual games - when hardcore gamers look down their nose at Bejeweled players, this is what they complain about - Bejeweled, in their view, is too simple, too easy to anticipate. The latter is the problem with most bad NES games. Jumping mechanics that move with torturous slowness across an arc larger than is necessary for most purposes. Attack mechanics that make it functionally impossible to fight without taking damage. Hit detection that makes ledges as difficult to reach as enemies are to dodge. All of these serve to make the game frustrating to play because the consequences of one's actions can no longer be predicted with sufficient accuracy. Circus Caper commits every one of these sins.

But what makes Circus Caper bad is, interestingly, also what makes clowns scary. Stay with me here. Research on coulrophobia has suggested that fear of clowns springs from a difficulty of visual processing on the part of young children. When a young child has begun to recognize human facial features and to read facial expressions, confrontation with the exaggerated distortions of clown makeup are terrifying because they overwhelm the nascent visual faculty. In other words, clowns are scary because they are a partial recognition. The same principle is what makes Circus Caper so bad - the game is close enough to the familiar rhythms of video games to be recognized, but far enough that dependence on these rhythms will get you shot. The result is intensely unpleasant.

This phenomenon can also be understood as an excessively wide uncanny valley. As we grow older, we learn to distinguish between human faces and their representations, and exaggerated representations such as clowns stop being as big an issue because we know enough to not try processing them as human faces. The uncanny valley occurs when a simulated face is realistic enough that it does not instinctively get processed as a representation, but is still not sufficiently accurate to be processed as a face.

All of this suggests we are circling a larger and more fundamental problem. (A statement that could serve as the motto for the Nintendo Project.) Taking a more macro view, this problem is recognizable as one of the fundamental problems of existence: the problem of how to delineate figure from ground. In other words, "What's that?" At this vast scale, the problem is not so much intractable as omnipresent - a question so fundamental that it is impossible to see where to begin answering it. Any line we take seems immediately to start crossing with other lines, forming a densely packed web that sprawls across imaginary space. This non-Euclidean horror, which whispered deep in the mind of H.P. Lovecraft, is what Deleuze and Guattari came to name "rhizome."

The mind strains to impose reason upon the problem, and in doing so reiterate the problem on an ever larger scale. For a moment, we imagine that these roads converge - that there exists a pattern that draws them towards unity. Across the space behind our eyes they streak, etchings glowing with bright golden light, until they converge into a pool of light, a point of light, a nexus of roads that we may call "city."

Here in this cluster we can move, if not with freedom, with efficiency. In 2008, well off the anticipated schedule of such things, the eschaton quietly gained critical mass when, for the first time in human history, it became the case that more people lived in cities than not. What are the consequences of this fact on human consciousness? The pastoral, long a source of fascination, will surely wither in the face of this. But will this be the withering of death, or rather a pruning back, as a winemaker removes branches of her vine to strengthen the fruit that survives?

The pull of urbanization is, in essence, the reason that Obama won the 2008 election. His politics had essentially nothing to do with it. There was no significant change in the views of people. Rather, there was a significant change in the pool of people voting. Urban voters are more liberal. Increasing the number of urban voters increases the strength of the more liberal party. It's simple. The underlying cause? Cities are agents of change and upheaval. Cities are what culture, heresy, revolution, and art come out of. Art may be inspired by the pastoral, written in the pastoral, it may praise the pastoral, but art only exists because of the city and its ability to distribute it. Even in the digital age - especially in the digital age - the consolidation of resources offered by the city is crucial.

But as we turn down this road, we realize that our nexus is less firm than we had hoped. The etchings of light are moving. And beyond that, we come to realize that this is not a mere two dimensional space. Etchings run parallel and beneath each other, across multiple levels. It is increasingly difficult to situate ourselves. Where we are going and where we have been is an issue. We begin marking our territory with words and descriptors, doggerel, if you'll forgive the vulgar pun. Granted now the luxury of knowing where we have been, we can travel with more freedom. But this freedom is short-lived. Quickly the specter of repetition arises. It's a frightening problem - repetition pushes the known into strangeness. A rose is a rose is a rose is a clown. Or, worse, from a writer's perspective, into tedium.

Eventually, due to the constraints of topic, the stretches of new road grow slender. Obstacles close in. The nature of a city is that identity is a tough property to maintain. The other circles around in close proximity, policing your every move. And then there are the stranger issues - odd roadblocks that pop up and stop you in your tracks. All the same, the drive to reach new points intensifies. The last shreds of the topic become all the more attractive, all the more alluring. The city fades to a few points and a frantic rush to reach them.

Eventually there is but one point left. Let's call it City Connection, a 1988 port of a 1985 Japanese arcade game by Jaleco. But what's that? Where do we find it?

Have we already been there after all?



  2. Haha, I have to tell you...I saw the picture of the clown before reading anything and remembered a recent conversation where I asked someone what was so scary about clowns. Then I read your first sentence and chuckled. I still don't get it though. Maybe it was all the fault of Stephen King and the serial killer John Wayne Gacey, but clowns are just people in make-up. Still, that image is a bit freaky.

  3. Those classic games are so re-memorable. I remember hitting up blockbuster every day and picking up a new Snes game, and taking advantage of that money off swap thing. It was awesome.

  4. 8 bit for life. i stil enjoy playing the odler games ove a lot of teh new ones just becasue thery seem more enjoyable

  5. Those retro games are still quite amazing and bring back plenty of memories.

  6. I guess I fall into the category of being a "hardcore gamer" because you hit my opinion about bejeweled dead center. I dont get why people play that when its so damn easy and boring

  7. classic and cute games!

  8. Creepy clown...

  9. Just found your blog and I love this idea. I recently got sucked back into the original Red Pokemon game.
    You've got some great points, can't wait to read more.

    also that is one very, very creepy clown.

  10. Love what you're doing with this blog! I mentioned and linked you in a recent post I made


  11. Wow, very in depth. I'm a definite follower.