Sunday, October 3, 2010

Hail Set. I Mean Glycon. Shit. What'd I Say. (Cobra Command, Cobra Triangle, Code Name Viper)

Like most people, I was raised in part with the slogan "If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge?" The answer, I dutifully learned, was no, which always struck me as weird, because, let's face it, if the entire world jumped off a bridge, there'd probably be a good reason, and anyway, in a post-apocalyptic wasteland I wouldn't stand a chance, so bridge-jumping seems a more pleasant way out. All of which is a roundabout way of noting that if Alan Moore, my role model, said to jump off a bridge, I'd give the matter serious consideration.

Thankfully, Alan Moore does not do such things - which is a bit tautological, really, as I wouldn't be so overwhelmingly awed by him if he pulled crap like that. Instead he just worships fraudulent Roman snake gods. And takes a really frightening amount of drugs. He doesn't even particularly push these views - I mean, he writes about Glycon, but it's not as though Alan Moore is wandering the streets of Northampton wearing a sandwich board that proclaims "The End is Nigh. Embrace the Snake." Honestly, if you started worshipping Glycon, he'd probably think you a bit of an uncreative dullard.

Today's games, as the titles indicate, all have to do with snakes. Which is odd, as none of them actually have snakes in them. It's like the rabbit entry, only more inscrutable. (God help us all) So let's get this out of our system. Our most explicit Alan Moore homage. A celebration of serpents, symbolism, and madness. I warn you, this one is epic, and will involve, in addition to three video games, a survey of mythology, the Garden of Eden, Coleridge, Aristotle, Blake, US/Latin American relations (with a side of cocaine and the CIA), theories of nationhood, the fall of Rome, evolution, and linguistics. So, you know. Strap in.

As Moore notes, snakes are ridiculously common in creation myths. In America, no doubt, the most popular of these snakes is the serpent in the Garden of Eden, read in Protestant Christianity as Satan himself. Other cultures take a more moderate approach - Jörmungandr is clearly not one of the good guys in Norse Mythology, but on the other hand, you'd rather keep him in place than not. (The same, admittedly, cannot be said for Níðhöggr, but we may yet redeem him) The Ouroboros of our previous entry flirts with actual benignity, and links in with the mysterious Kundalini, both feared and revered in its traditions. Set is often portrayed as a snake, though this is something of an anachronism, his more traditional form being canine.

The Greeks give top billing to Typhon, king of all monsters, and often serpentine, but down in the supporting cast we see the twin snakes of Hermes's caduceus, itself an image held over from the Sumerian Enki, the water and language god. Enki provides a role strangely analagous to the Edenic serpent - giver of forbidden knowledge - secretly warning humanity of Enlil's attempts to eliminate them. Sumerian mythology also ties the serpent to mortality - in the Gilgamesh epic, it is a snake who deals the final blow to Gilgamesh's attempts at immortality. These myths form the proto-Bible, with Yaweh, by all appearances, being a descendent of these myths. In the oldest form, Yaweh is one of seven children of El, is in the original myths the consort of Asherah, later Ishtar/Inanna, who is at times the daughter or chief rival of Enki.

Snakes, then, form a fundamental aspect of existence. OK. But what does the snake do in these stories? This question has no answer. This is because it is impossible to approach this question directly. It can only be answered in metaphor. We have to approach it grounded in things, or else all we will produce is madness.

(The reasons for this will be made clear once we work our way through the question)

We introduce a thing then. Cobra Command. A 1988 Data East helicopter shooter. Neither classic nor crap, the game relies on the militaristic Army of One fantasy that we have already established. You fly a helecopter to destroy enemy troops and rescue hostages. Level one takes place in Sumatra, a name more familiar to people as a coffee than an island of Indonesia. There is no reason for an invasion of Indonesia in 1988 - in fact, the US was allied with Indonesia. Granted, the game was originally Japanese, but Japanese military policy, for a variety of reasons, precludes the Army of One fantasy, meaning we must read Cobra Command as narrativizing an American invasion of Indonesia.

(Subsequent locations continue through Indonesia - Java, then to Borneo, adding Malaysia and Brunei to the list, and finally Siam, i.e. Thailand. No remotely sane military action would take you through these locations. See "cobra triangle" below.)

But why the snake? What is the snake in Cobra Command? Clearly it is a form of command - the title is instructively obvious on this point. So what assumptions go into this? We must, in this narrative, have a structure of power. War requires this - a concept of nations, for one. Or, more accurately, the phenomenon of nations, with or without actual conceptualization. After all, the nations of the past bear minimum resemblance to the concept we utilize today.

Consider Odoacer, the barbarian king who overthrew Romulus Augustus and brought about the final end of the Roman Empire. This is an iconic moment in history - the final fall of Rome. But let's go into more detail.

Odoacer's title, historically, is considered to be King of Italy, although Italy as such was an amorphous concept for a full millennium after he became king of it. Romulus Augustus, who he deposed, was a 12 year old figurehead for his father, Orestes, who himself helped depose Romulus Augustus's predecessor, Julius Nepos, who did not step down but rather fled to Dalmatia, now part of Croatia. Odoacer's authority over the Roman empire, which still existed in the East, was explicitly granted by Nepos and Zeno, the Eastern Roman emperor. Indeed, on paper Odoacer did not rule Italy, but worked as a client of Nepos, and, subsequently, the Eastern Roman emperor, although this was effectively fiction. Furthermore, Odoacer did not invade Rome to take it over. Rather, Odoacer was a general from a Germanic tribe who was allied to Rome by treaty - a concept called foederati.

So the fall of the Roman empire consisted, in fact, of a general in the employ of the Roman empire taking over the machinery of the Roman empire on behalf of the Roman empire he simultaneously rules and is employed by. Needless to say, the question of border and nation here is exceedingly amorphous - a city could potentially be part of the still-surviving institutional structure of the Roman empire, part of Odoacer's Italian kingdom, part of Nepos's Rome in Croatia, or under the rule of Constantinople, and, in practice, was likely to be all four, assuming it was not in fact under the control of the Visigoths or Ostrogoths, who were not so much nations as migrant tribes. And yet war took place in this incredibly undefined space.

What, then, do we make of the power structures underlying the fictional invasion of Sumatra that did not take place in 1988? These structures that are, apparently, a cobra command? What is a cobra command? The better question is what sort of command can possibly exist here. But crucially, despite the manifest complexity and inconceivability of that command structure, the structure functions - the game is playable. So we have defined cobra command - it is a structure of power that exists without requiring or allowing understanding (for instance, the simultaneous existence of four nations over one tract of land, or fictional invasions of Indonesia). It is the structure that works inexplicably. Cobra command is the sort of command that just works.

(It is worth noting that Glycon, Alan Moore's snake deity, emerged in the later days of Rome, when cobra command was essential to the function of day-to-day government)

Now that we understand the nature of snakes, at least partially (and we do) we can ask what Cobra Triangle represents. On one level, it represents a 1989 boat-racing game. But why the arbitrary title? It sounds cool, yes, but there's no cobras. No triangles. It's an arbitrary name of a fictional boat. The game could just as easily be Wombat Trapezoid. Again, we run into a problem of signifying. We have to ask, why a snake? Why a cobra?

Unlike Cobra Command, there is not a clear structure controlling Cobra Triangle. It is unclear what these boat races are, but they seem relatively hostile, in that the boats shoot at each other and lay mines, both of which are generally things that a marketing consultant would tell you to drop before trying to take your sport to a wider audience. It is also unclear whether the giant snake on the title screen actually exists in the game or not. Certainly not in the half hour I played. On one level, yes, the game is clearly held together by cobra command - inscrutable order that works without rational or expressible form.

On the other hand, there seems something more here. Cobra command covers merely the social phenomenon of power and structure. It is the ineffable glue that allows the raw exertion of power to take semi-material form. Cobra triangle requires something more - by the name, something spatial. Cobra Triangle is not merely an inscrutable configuration of systems of power, but rather an inscrutable collection of objects. If we understand Cobra Command as a representation of our world with inchoate political configurations, we must understand Cobra Triangle as a representation of something that is not a world. The basic dynamics of Cobra Triangle's boat races are impossible. They map a space that is not space, that functions in ways space cannot function, and yet is understandable as analogous to real space.

This is a common condition for narrative. Indeed, Western aesthetics is founded on this condition - Aristotle does not concern himself with the problem of eccentricity in fictional worlds. Indeed, Aristotle does not conceive of a play as taking place in a "world" as such - Aristotelean narrative aesthetics (which still, in an only minimally altered form, define our understanding of narrative) are instead based on the idea that narrative action is an imitation of actual life. That is, we do not mistake fictional events as being a series of things that happen to people who happen to lack a real existence. Rather, they are a play of ideas and resemblances that hold their power because they are analogous to real existence. When we weep at the death of Hamlet, we are not mourning a person who never existed in the first place, but rather mourning the fact that such events are a part of the human condition - a condition that is, I should note, only understood in the first place because of art. In the Aristotelean model, then, the eccentricities of narrative space are not problems to overcome, but the very building material of communication. Narrative space is a cobra triangle just as political discourse is cobra command - the ineffable functioning of the transparently non-functional.

On the surface this would seem the less radical of the two serpents. And perhaps it would be, were it not for Samuel Coleridge's creation in 1817 of suspension of disbelief. That Coleridge is, in this assertion, a flaming idiot about the nature of the supernatural in literature is clear - and as exhibit A I will trot out William Blake, who self-evidently had no disbelief to suspend in the first place. (In Blake, the serpent is played by Orc, the fallen form of Luvah, one of the Four Zoas created in the primordial division of Albion. Orc, like all serpent gods, plays a dual role as destructive tempter and giver of light and potential. In Blake this reaches its most beautifully heretical form, as Orc is both Satan and Christ figure, defined in part by its potential to transmute into loving and life-giving Luvah) More likely, to my mind, suspension of disbelief does not so much represent a functioning literary idea as it does a defense mechanism of an opium-addled mind too cowardly to fully embrace the collapsing distinction between dream and reality it was experiencing.

Meanwhile, embedded deep within consciousness, our serpent plots strategy. If a Cobra Triangle is understood as the Aristotelean narrative understanding in which we conceptualize narrative not as an eccentric system whose oddities we forgive, but rather as a system that is coherently communicating through gaps and oddities, then Coleridge's aesthetic cowardice, once turned intellectual pandemic, is disastrous. The serpent takes just over a century to construct and deliver its antibody. If Coleridge is going to insist that we treat eccentricities of narrative space as problems that must be willfully overlooked, the serpent will simply port these eccentricities to the material world. Enter quantum mechanics, which destabilizes the spatial autonomy of matter itself, reducing the fundamental substance of the universe from earth to air - replacing the certain structure of things with abstract mathematical relations. Suddenly we are made not of stuff but of symbols - the final derivation of a staggeringly complex sequence of equations. The cobra triangle suddenly tears through the page, mouth dripping venom, and burrows its way into the very heart of the universe. (The moral of this story is that you should not take too much laudanum, as it might result in the complete destabilization of all conceptions of reality for the entire planet.)

Now for the most staggering and impossible part of the narrative. We asked what the snake in creation stories does. Now that we have seen the snake's method, we may unleash him in his most fundamental form, one that will make Níðhöggr's assault on Ygdrassil seem like the frightfully unambitious masturbations of a demonic slacker. Now it is time to unleash the snake upon the very core of epistemology, of ontology, of being.

Code Name: Viper requires first that we disentangle some cobra command. The game has you as a lone US special forces agent, assigned to destroy seven bases of a drug cartel in South America. Though not stated explicitly, a bit of map reading suggests that this includes a base in Venezuela, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and three in Brazil. This is curious - the drug trade in Latin America has some existence in both Venezuela and, in 1990, especially in Peru, but the fact of the matter is that most of the game has you seeking drug cartels where none existed - at least, not cocaine cartels, which are what is most associated with Latin America.

Furthermore, the issue of US anti-drug wars in Latin America are troublesome. First of all, the US had peaceful relations with all of the relevant countries in 1990. Sending US Army personnel to conduct raids in these countries is what we'd technically call an "act of war." Which is not to say that such things didn't happen - but we should note that the acts depicted in Code Name: Viper most resemble those of the War on Drugs, which had as its one outbreak along these lines Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama in 1989 (perfect timing for Code Name: Viper), which included much of the US military, including the Special Forces division. At the culmination of this military action the US took the stunning step of having the US military capture Noriega, the head of state of Panama, and bring him to the US where he was tried under federal criminal law and incarcerated in Florida until 2007, at which point he was extradited to France and tried there.

Panama, however, is not a country invaded in Code Name: Viper. But let's be honest here - Operation Just Cause was a reversal of past US policy towards Noriega, who had been a valuable ally through the 80s against the Soviet Union, and who we knew full well was supporting himself heavily on bribes from drug traffickers. This was standard CIA practice in the Cold War - drug trafficking funded dictators that the CIA propped up because of their willingness to lend military force to anti-Communist efforts. This is relevant because the nature of the Army of One invasion in Code Name: Viper is much more CIA than Special Forces - your character is invading Jungle fortresses armed only with a handgun. Which, actually, even the CIA is probably too smart to do.

So OK. We've got cobra command here, certainly - a flagrantly impossible exertion of power. We've also got cobra triangle here - a drug operation run in countries with no drugs, and, more to the point, no value in shipping drugs. But there is, of course, a third serpentine term here - Code Name Viper. What role does the snake serve here? We already understand snakes - so what does it mean to unleash one on the level of names?

First we must theorize the code name. Code names serve two seemingly contradictory purposes. The first is to obscure. When, for instance, Operation Gothic Serpent was being planned, referring to it as Operation Gothic Serpent instead of That Plan We Have to Send Troops to Mogadishu and Capture Two Leaders of Adid's Command has the benefit, for instance, of not being obviously interpretable by these leaders. It adds, in other words, a level of mystery to proceedings that is valuable for covert action.

But the other role of code names, curiously, is almost exactly the opposite. Code names have the feature of surviving errors of transmission better than other options. By using the signifier "Operation Gothic Serpent," we condense and compact information, reducing the possibility of error. Some garbling in the sentence "Begin bombing Mogadishu" can lead to bombing any of Hargeisa, Merca, Kismayo, Burao, Garowe, or a number of other Somalian cities. Some garbling in the sentence "Commence Operation Gothic Serpent" is considerably less risky, because it is possible to design it so there are no phonetic resemblances among the relevant code names. An inaccurate attempt to resolve garbled language is unlikely to create a false positive with a code name.

So code names are, bizarrely, a way of increasing and decreasing comprehension simultaneously. What, then, is Code Name Viper meant to refer to, exactly? The game manual says that it refers to your character, the mysterious Mr. Smith. Very well. So presumably your identity in Code Name: Viper is risky. As you are a lone operative in these jungle regions, the value of this code name is dodgy. You're not going to confuse anybody with it. So what, exactly, is being concealed here? What does Viper stand in place of? What are its secrets?

Let's return to an earlier issue - the cobra triangle of the game, namely why the war on drugs is being fought here in the first place. Alan Moore, in the final issue of Promethea, asserts that serpent gods such as Glycon are contacted via use of the psychedelic drug ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is an herbal combination of DMT and a MAOI that allows the effects of DMT to be experienced via oral ingestion instead of smoking. (Think the film Altered States here) It is associated with traditional religions of the Amazonian and Andean regions of South America - in other words, its use extends across the entire relevant region. It is thus considerably more logical to assume that Code Name: Viper is targeting ayahuasca than it is to assume that it is targeting cocaine.

The only problem with this is that there is no particular issue of trafficking around ayahuasca - in fact, all of the component plants can be legally acquired in the US, and it is only the act of mixing them that is illegal. So an attack on an ayahuasca drug syndicate would not be an attack based on the protecting of any obvious US interests. Rather, it would have to be treated as an ideological attack - something more akin to Vietnam and Korea than Panama and Nicaragua. In which case the code name takes on a bizarre potency - if one is attacking a region defined primarily by its use of psychedelic drugs that allow one to contact snake gods, attacking it via a code name like "Viper" is exceedingly tricky, reframing it as an attack from within.

The problem is that code names already belong to the serpent. Their function of obscuring meaning while making it function is semiotically identical to cobra command and cobra triangles. This is the grand irony - a code name of Viper is already part of the system that Mr. Smith is ostensibly attacking. He is not only conducting an attack from within, he is conducting an attack that is plotted from within, that is part of the system. This is a case of autoimmunity -the body attacking itself.

This is the final form of the serpent god. Autoimmunity. Let's return to the Garden of Eden - our culture's essential serpent myth. The Eden story presupposes the anthropic principle - that is, the world exists primarily for the benefit of conscious man. As part of that world, then, God created the serpent, who can, in this primordial state, be defined essentially as the border point between mystery and knowledge. This border point is necessarily unstable. It has to attack the system it is a part of, because its role is as the revealer of secrets - of forbidden knowledge. This is a staggering realization: the serpent is the tree.

This is the ultimate form of what Godel, Turing, and Heisenberg only scratch the surface of. The unaskable question about what the snake does in the Garden of Eden. The fact that invites ultimate heresy. Let's break it down to its absolute raw form.

The serpent/tree is the part of the system that, if accessed, brings about the evolution of the system from one state to another. That is, it is the knowledge that forces man to move from the Garden of Eden to the Fallen World. Notably, this knowledge is part of the Garden of Eden - part of God's design. The Edenic system has to have a serpent - if it didn't, God would not have put one there. The serpent is thus a self-sustaining tautology, an irreducible other. Magic, mystery, secrets, sex, and death all rolled into one.

Alan Moore offers the following reading of the Eden story, beginning with the note that Eve springs from Adam's rib - a fact that is best understood if Adam and Eve are amoebas. The snake, in this telling, is DNA - the drive to evolve. The serpent is the idea of progress - the idea that, instead of asexual copying reproduction and immortality, we can embrace sexual reproduction and death. Which is true - progress, the drive forward, evolution can only occur if there is a corresponding notion of death. Which is part of the design - having created man in God's image, God requires that man strive to heal the gap, to remerge with God, which is only possible if the serpent is there to drive.

Let us reduce this to its most primal mystery. Primordial stew congeals, sits up, awakens. There is the moment of consciousness - the moment in which "I" is conceptualized, and, implicitly with it, "Am." But this is a moment of division - to recognize "I" we must recognize it in contrast with that which is not me - that which is you, or it. In other words, a necessary precondition for "Am" is "Not." This is the serpent's final form, Enki's linguistic madness - the bewildering fact that there is no conceivable starting point for consciousness. You have to pick between "Am" and "Not," each inconceivable without the other. This is the chicken and the egg subsumed into its most fundamental form (swallowed, perhaps, by a snake).

What does the snake do in mythology? Any answer to the question destroys the possibility of the question. It is the end of the world in the creation myth.

The end is nigh. Embrace the snake.


  1. JUMP! hell yeah. as long as the water was free of rocks bellow..

  2. haha i remember cobra triangle when i was a kid, i just never knew how to play :) haha.

  3. I remember some of these from my C64

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. good read, i miss my NES already. it's in a closet around here somewhere.

    check out my blog as well for articles about gaming and technology.

  6. Very intriguing. I appreciate the Golden Bough-ness.

    So, this is about the good ol' 8bit, but it'd be interesting to hear/read an extrapolation of these ideas. Especially thinking about a franchise like Metal Gear.

    Anyways, good stuff!

  7. you've got me all nostalgic. i cant figure out how to follow you though :/

  8. any one who likes video games will like my blog called theblogof1000things... check it out

  9. no actually my blog is called The Blog of 1000 Things...

  10. Damn I used to know how to do this...

  11. you are seriously, the most intelligent human being on the face of the planet.

    <3 dennica pearl
    - through the eyes of a pearl
    - vintage shop

  12. Where is your follow option? This blog is fantastic, I want to make sure I don't miss any updates.

  13. Great blog...check mine out at

  14. Belated comment:

    In other words, a necessary precondition for "Am" is "Not." This is the serpent's final form, Enki's linguistic madness - the bewildering fact that there is no conceivable starting point for consciousness. You have to pick between "Am" and "Not," each inconceivable without the other.

    Or, as the scribe lamented to Enki:
    "I lay on a bed called 'O! and O no!'
    I let out a wail."

  15. These terms are far too useful not to incorporate them into my vocabulary ...