Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Towards an Occultism of Video Games Part I (Defender II)

Two of the most important elements of the Western occult tradition are the Kabbalah and Tarot. Are these classical occultist elements still useful in understanding the modern mysticism of the NES? Let's find out. Today, Kabbalah and Defender II. Next entry, Tarot and Defender of the Crown.

Kabbalah, at its most basic level (and again, in the Western occult tradition, which may have little to no resemblance to actual Jewish mysticism) describes ten emanations of the divine called the Sephiroth. In a sort of fractal pattern, each of these ten emanations contains the whole of the map reflected within itself, even as they are also defined by a web of interactions between and among themselves. I'll explain more as we go.

Malkuth is the lowest sephira, and corresponds roughly but not entirely to the material world. It is important to recognize, however, that the material world is still being understood mystically. To think about Malkuth is not to think about the world in a limited, personal way, but to think about the entirety of the world, both as a physical phenomenon and as a place dominated by humans. It is to think about the systems and structures we have built to sustain us, and about the dichotomy between the vast importance of individual perspective and the functionally infinite universe that renders the individual a meaningless and arbitrary accident of carbon.

Defender II predates the NES, being most associated with the arcades and Atari 2600. It had the Defender name in home release, but was actually sold as Stargate in arcades. It did not make it out in the US on the NES until 1988, when it was already a classic game - to give some comparison, this would be like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City seeing a modern release not as a legacy or classics repackaging, but as an actual new game.

Defender's status as a classic arcade game is unimpeachable. It plays like the vintage arcade classic that it is. Its sequel is less heralded, despite the fact that the zippy controls and beefed up graphics of the NES version make it play quite nicely - certainly this is as enjoyable a Defender as ever existed.

As a corporate release, Defender II is downright odd. The game was developed by Williams, one of the two classic American pinball companies (the other being Bally, whose name backwards forms one of the enemies in Defender II). Williams branched out into arcade games, and by 1988, when it finally got Defender II out for the NES, it had acquired Bally-Midway. This merger lasted until 1998, when Williams spun off its video game manufacturing business as Midway (discontinuing the Bally brand of pinball machines shortly thereafter, although the Bally brand survives given that Bally pinball was itself a spin-off of Bally Technologies, which survives, amusingly enough, as a competitor of Williams Technologies in the industry of casino machines). Midway is currently in Chapter 11, having sold the bulk of its assets to Warner Brothers, who now operates them as NetherRealm studios.

The game was published, however, by Atarisoft, which was Atari's label for publishing games other people made for systems Atari didn't own. This proved to be a fairly silly idea, and Atari gave it up almost as soon as it started it, along with the rest of Atari, which nuked itself following the 1983 video game crash. Atari had been merged into Warner in 1976, but Warner gave up on it in 1984, selling the bulk of it to Jack Tramiel, the founder of Commodore, who owned it in 1988 when Defender II came out for the NES. These days Atari is its own company again, having been punted through JTS, a minor and defunct hard drive company, who sold it to Hasbro, who in turn sold it to a French holding company called Infogrames, who finally renamed themselves as Atari.

Although Atarisoft were the owners of the publishing rights to Defender II in 1988, however, they weren't the ones to publish it in the US. That would be HAL Laboratory, a Japanese video game company that is intimately intertwined with Nintendo itself, to the point where it's at times difficult to draw a firm line between the two. HAL is where Nintendo goes for, among other things, Kirby, Smash Bros, and ancillary Pokemon games.

More than almost any other game we've looked at, then, Defender II is a product of the 1980s - a game that cycles through an insane wealth of major video game studios, managing to hit three separate continents in the process. Its actual developer, Eugene Jarvis, is a respected minor figure in the video gaming world, but here it seems more accurate to consider the game as a product of the world, something that welled up within the gaps of the industry.

Yesod is the next sephira, associated with the moon, and, more importantly, with imagination and dreams. Here our focus must shift from treating Defender as a material product to treating it as an idea. As an idea, its inspiration seems clear - its central image of UFOs vacuuming up innocent humans is straight out of 1950s flying saucers. Reading an account of the design process, however, one is struck by the fact that, like its release process, Defender was a game of accretion - ideas cobbled together and stolen from a wealth of sources, and a series of small decisions that resulted in a game, rather than a concept that was refined into a game.

From the player's perspective, of course, these two are indistinguishable. This is the great trickery of fiction - the illusion that what you see was always there, as opposed to something slowly constructed, often with little idea of what it is that was being constructed.

Only from the perspective of Yesod do we see some theory that allows us out of this mess. Through Yesod we can see that Defender, like all ideas, exists independently of thought - that like mathematics, all ideas are discovered. The process of artistic creation, appearing in the material world as a frustrating slog of refining ideas, is really just the archeology of Yesod, the disinterring of existing concepts, the cleaning of them and displaying of them.

Above Yesod, we trace the origin of the concept, as mysterious and byzantine as the origin of the species.

Hod, the third realm, is the intellectual sphere of language, mathematics, and thought. Associated with Mercury, here more in the theological than astrological sense, it is the realm of communication. This realm is uniquely important for video games, which have complex mathematical systems as their underlying communicative aspects in a way few other media necessarily do (although all are slowly converging upon this point). The orange hue associated with Mercury converts nicely to the copper that remains essential for wiring and displaying digital media. The collapse of all digital media into binary data, and then, in turn, to mere numbers is pure Hod. Here, I confess, I may only talk in theory - I am not a programmer, and my relationship to this aspect of the game is that of one standing at the base of a mountain imagining the summit. Whole Nintendo Projects could be written on the Hod of video games by writers other than myself.

Ironically, in most spheres I am far more comfortable with Hod than the fourth sephira, Netzach, representing the realm of emotions. It is only in the Nintendo Project that I find myself more comfortable here. It is Netzach I evoke every time I spin out a story of personal history and emotion.

Defender II offers little avenue for that, having not been a game I played before today - the next game, Defender of the Crown, would have served better. The underpinnings of Defender II's Netzach are being written here, today, with the joys and frustrations that are associated with the game. Note that these joys and frustrations are not merely the realm of linguistic signifiers. A first meeting with a friend I met online in a few hours, my sore shoulder, and the fact that I made a small but irritating error on some job applications yesterday all weigh on my mind as I play and write about the game. These are now linked to the game, just as games, songs, and books are linked to the experience of reading them.

What I will miss most when I convert my library to ebooks is my shelving system. My books are shelved in the order I got them, all the way back to middle school. I'm capable of shelving this way because the objects invoke memories - I can pick up a book and think "When did I get this? Where did I read it? What does the book remind me of as an object?" And then sort by where I lived, what classes I was teaching or taking, what Thanksgiving I hid away in my room away from family and read it, etc. This atlas of memory and object is not based on any signifier beyond Netzach.

These concepts were not part of Defender II when it was written - they could not have been. I wasn't even born then. But they are part of the game now. This is its passage to mythology - from physical object up the Kabbalistic tree. It is these processes that position a game on the edge of myth.

Tiphireth, the fifth sphere, associated with the golden sun, is the point past that edge. Here is the very touchpoint of the mortal and the divine, the point which is myth itself. Here the slow collapse of control to chaos and finally death that embodies arcade-style gameplay serves as the metaphor of entropy that it is. Here is where we are all the spaceship that flies fruitlessly, frantically around, trying to save everybody but, in time, failing. Here also is the image of the hero that the game never lets us become, exemplified by the handful of elite players whose interaction with the game is fundamentally unlike ours.

In Tiphireth, the game is never sloppy. Its faults are forgiven, incinerated in the radiance of imagining what it could become. Here it is worth a digression to explain the structure of the Kabbalistic tree, the map that sorts the sephiroth. A rare non-screenshot. The image is John Couthcart's map of the Kabbalah as the London Underground - a print I bought and happily hung on my wall. The bottommost point of the map is Malkuth. Yesod lies immediately above it, labeled here as Foundation, the English translation of the word. Hod lies above it and to the left, and Netzach above it and to the right - Splendour and Victory. (Note also that there are alternate paths - one can develop from Malkuth directly to either Hod or Netzach).

Tiphireth is the return to the center at Beauty. It is the very center of the map. It is the resolution of the dialectic of logic and emotion, yes, but it is also the further development of the concepts of Yesod, having the same relationship with it that it does with Malkuth. Note the name of the path that lies between them - Art. These are the ideas beyond ideas, the perfect realizations of what we try to express. In Yesod we move from human processes to ideas, now we move further, from ideas to archetypes, to legends, to meta-ideas. Everything is symbol here, and not merely symbol, but every symbol it can possibly gesture towards.

A man captured by a flying saucer falls to Earth, and it is 9/11 and a man falls from the crumbling tower, itself an image from the Tarot used to connect Hod to Netzach. A ship dives, swooping to try to rescue him, and it is Orpheus chasing after Euripides, the battle against death, fruitless, hopeless, and necessary. A ship explodes and it is every sunken ship in every war, the Lusitania, the USS Arizona, the Titanic, nameless U-Boats and Viking longships, Triremes and Ironsides. And all of this is immediate, felt not as some distant, elevated extremity but as real, present, right now.

Above Tiphireth lies abstractions upon abstractions. Next is a return to the leftmost pillar, the Pillar of Severity, named more for Geburah, the sixth sephira, than any other. Geburah is vengeance and war, that aspect of the world that purifies, incinerates all that is not holy. It is all too easy to find the Geburah of things, and Defender II is no exception. Like most video games, it is a celebration of violence. But Geburah is not unchained savagery. It is not worldly anger but righteous anger, not the chaos of the battlefield but the cold coherence of tactics.

One does not triumph in Defender II by button mashing or shooting wildly. One must be careful, strategic, and precise. In doing so, one does not restrain one's violence. One amplifies it - elevating it from a random howl to the icy fire of the warrior. Defender II affords us a way of measuring one's success as a warrior - a score. (The word's etymology is telling) The greatest warriors are the calmest - the most restrainedly tactical. This is the lesson of Geburah - both its mightiest and most terrifying aspect. It is impossible not to be afraid of the cold, calculating judgment of Geburah, impossible not to stand in awe at the player who can best execute it. These climes cannot help but offer terror.

Across the tree, on the Pillar of Mercy, lies Chesed, the seventh sephira (I should note that I have counted up from the bottom - its number is 4, as they are traditionally numbered from the top). Chesed is in fact known as Mercy - it is the universe in its protective, kindly aspects. The sheltering sky, as Alan Moore called it in Promethea. Defender II's relation to these ideas is clear enough. For all its violence, Defender II is a game where you are cast as protector. Those aspects of the game that are its Geburah are in service of its Chesed - the simple fact that your role is to protect the planet and save its people.

This is an important ethical decision - one that went into making the game. Eugene Jarvis wanted to create a fast-paced action game, but wanted also to create a game where that action was tempered ethically. The name "Defender" was chosen precisely for that tempering effect. But it is worth noting that the name is not everything - there is perhaps no dialectic in the Kabbalah more antagonistic and difficult to bridge than that between Geburah and Chesed. Protection requires force at some stage, and force requires strength, and strength requires aggression and destruction, from which we seek protection. The contours of this ecosystem are inescapable.

(Indeed, it is significant that this the only dialectic whose resolution is not offered - there is no return to the middle pillar available from Chesed or Geburah. What should be there is the Abyss, which we will omit from the present discussion.)

These final three sephiroth are extreme divine concepts. The first of them, Binah, is the highest feminine sphere, though the introduction of gender symbolism here poses a troubling ontological question. It is perhaps interesting to note, however, that it is the female, not the male, that occupies the peak position on the Pillar of Severity. Binah is the realm of final mysteries - those deep and impenetrable caves whose truths are beyond comprehension, but which we are compelled to seek anyway. At once sinister and mothering, this is the vagina dentata and mother's milk at once.

Can Defender II be elevated this high? I would say yes. The route, however, twists our way to the base of the Pillar of Severity, back to Hod. Defender II, like Defender before it, is a scrolling game - the player cycles around a map, with the screen displaying only part of the world at any given time. This was a major innovation when Defender came out - less so by 1988. But this idea, which comes out of the programming and algorithm, creates Binah. The game progresses without you. People are captured when you are not looking. There is always, in Defender II, the unknown - things happening that cannot be seen. The central mechanic of the game, the central thing that makes it the challenge that it is, is not the enemy projectiles or the difficulty of rescuing people. It is that you never have enough information. It is that there is always the unknown.

What does it mean for the game to happen unseen? When we imagine it as happening, we imagine graphics - we imagine that an offscreen abduction happens much like an onscreen one. But here, when a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody to see it, there is no rendering engine. The offscreen abductions are invisible manipulations of numbers that are not conceptualized as graphics until we zoom our ship to see them, at which point where we are collapses to data. These mysteries are not merely unseen, they are unseeable, unknowable, unimaginable. The things we cannot see happen in a way that we could not see them, and by gazing upon them, we alter the event.

From here we see more mysteries. What lies above or below the screen? What world does the world of Defender II take place in? Once we have imagined a fictional world, we must imagine what lies off-set. The answer is nothing - just as nothing is "really" happening offscreen in Defender. And yet.

Chokmah, on the other hand, is the ultimate male principle. The simple concept of action, in its purest and most fundamental form. In one sense, video games are all action. Note on the map the distance of Chokmah from Hod - they are on opposite corners of the map. (Strangely, so are Binah and Netzach) Hod, in Defender II, forms the systems that allow the game to function. The code. But the game is not complete until a player adds the necessary final ingredient. Action. Represented here by the controller, the magic wand of our time (see also the Wii), it is the will of the player, the decision to take an identity, an I within Defender II, and to take action within that role. Are our actions already circumscribed by a system of language that contains within it infinite unknowabilities? Are our actions always going to walk an impossible tightrope between mercy and severity? Yes and yes. But that does not eliminate this primal concept, and this far up the tree, primality is all we have left. There must be an action for Defender II to be a game.

Which leaves Kether, the summit of the tree and the middle pillar. The resolution. Let us return, having swept through four specific cases of mythic and magical symbolism, to the basic idea of idea and symbolism, and to Tiphireth. Within Tiphireth, all things are, as I said, symbol. All things are pregnant with meaning. The specific has given way to the archetype. What further development is possible or necessary? Kether is the monotheistic, but in its most scintillatingly total sense. No vengeful sky fairy or jihading zealot, Kether is total, absolute unity of all things. Inconceivable, because to conceive it requires a mind separate from it and thus denies it, falls out of it towards Chokmah and below.

And yet. Defender II is a set of rules. There is an ideal action. We can imagine perfect play of the game - some rarified individuals can even demonstrate it for a time, before fatigue or hunger interrupt their fusion with the machine. A world where every astronaut is saved, where every evil ship is shot, where nobody dies. A world that perfectly balances protection and destruction. A world where the mysteries and primal action work in beautiful, perfect tandem.

No player picks up the controller and experiences this world. But every player dreams of it. This perfect run, the perfect, flawless execution of video gaming, is an inseparable part of the medium. It is the ultimate object. We do not play the run ourselves. Nobody does. And yet, on the other hand, everybody does. The video game, by destroying the idea of a unitary text and instead defining the text entirely as individual experience, reconstitutes the unity of being in a more rarified and abstract sense. To play Defender is to merge with a broader consciousness, to strive towards this point. Kether too is within Defender, because Defender strives eternally towards it.


  1. The game may be wonderful - but sadly the interpretation of the Kabbalah is utter codswallop - the designer should really study the subject a little more earnestly; the Tarot trumps are completely wrongly ascribed and show no order at all:)

  2. The ones on the map? Other than the Emperor/Star switch (an invention of Crowley's), it's the standard arrangement from the Golden Dawn tradition.

  3. Excellent Blog! I have been impressed by your thoughts and the way you ffxiv gil