With apologies and homages to "The Spectre Garden"
This temple, clad in neon and monochrome, spreads out around us, clear in the areas in front of our eyes, but receding with our eyesight into shadows and distant scents of incense. The ancient stands shoulder to shoulder with abandoned futures, a retro-futuristic tomb. What beasts have we sealed within? Distantly there is the electrical whine of circuits firing, the frenzied drumming of hands on joysticks, gong of 8-bit chirps. Three cartridges lie before us on pedestals whose tops give way to the yonnic recesses of an NES loading tray. First is Dance Aerobics, a 1989 game utilizing the NES Power Pad peripheral.
The Daemon King Dance Aerobics:
We dance. We have always known that dancing brings about transformative mental states. An excitement that sits on the line between sexual and religious ecstasy.
The game is simple. Put your feet where you are told. The area where the game is played is limited to a tiny floor mat - barely bigger than a prayer rug. The game does not ask us to move beyond this space. It does not ask anything at all save that we move. That we dance.
We view ourselves as free. It is a mistake. Dance is inexorably linked to choreography. The dancer moves through physical space, across this plastic mat, but as we dance we dream of geometric dance. The game is easy at first, but difficulty increases. The choreography asked for grows complex. There is a limit point somewhere - a point where the human body cannot be relied upon to produce the movements asked of it. A point where the message burns out its medium, leaving us panting, gasping for breath at the side of the mat, swept up in the rhythm and then, in an even more primal moment, dropped abruptly by it, cast aside as the dance goes on without us. We watch as our dance meter falls to 0, and we are shut out of the song, but even as the song comes to a shrieking halt, some song, imagined, plays on, the geometric angel we failed to be dancing on without us.
We thought we danced to the music of the spheres, while all along it was St. Vitus's Dance, diseased firing of rotting neurons in dying limbs. And now we have fallen once again to a new dance, the Danse Macabre, Dance as Memento Mori. We have been tricked, this game has been a Pied Piper of Hamlin, and we have, like children, followed the lilting tune of the pipe for far too long. Now we see that we are dancing to our graves, a final moment of clarity, and in that clarity we see the larger truth - we could not have stopped this. We could never have stopped this. We were doomed the moment the first note sounded, and we could not have hoped to know that until it was too late.
And now our lust is torn asunder, the libidinous content of the dance turned sour. We thought that we were acting upon space, and now see that our motions were not bringing light to darkness, but rather us clawing madly at the dirt of a dark grave, as if we might keep that soil from our heads. We stand encased in filth and marvel at how the sublime erotic beauty we started in could have turned to this, wonder how we failed to notice it creeping in.
And realize still that we are dancing. Shuddering and sick, we step off the pad, and the dance fades away. For a moment the music seems to have become the rising din of arcade and world, not stopped but changed to some new movement of a larger symphony. And then we think, whether by choice or out of truth, it is gone, and leave this game behind for the next - a racing game, another entry in the Formula Racing genre.
The Holy Angel Danny Sullivan's Indy Heat
The ancient form of the mandala holds that through moving around and through a circle, one advances consciousness. One measures a circle starting anywhere, but one must measure. One must start. The infinity of choices does not absolve us of the need to make one.
The cars move around the mandala. We control but one of them, but are bound in this motion. We must circle. We must orbit. We must drive. The game allows us no choice. Even if we sit still, if we refuse to pick up the controller, if we do nothing other than acknowledge the game's existence, the game posits a car that is driven. Idling at the starting gate is still a drive. Reversing the car and whizzing backwards around the track crashing repeatedly is still a drive. Racing to win is a drive. There is no rebellion on that point.
Given that any rebellion we can muster is circumscribed as an acceptance of the larger point, we, like most people, opt not to reign in hell. We drive forward. We accept the act of circling. We work through the mandala. And having chosen service, we try to work through the mandala well. The mandala asks for speed. It wants us to drive it faster than anyone else. It does not merely want us to be fast enough to make it around, it wants us to be the fastest. It wants us to be the best.
Others drive the mandala with us. Outside of this place, we might know them, but here they are nothing but the cars that are not ours. They are the things that can be the fastest instead of us. We do not let them. We must not let them.
This game is unusual among racing games in that one sees the mandala. The normal view is right behind the car, so that we do not see the mandala but rather see only the urgency of advancement - the possibility of bringing a new thing into view. Here we see that there are no new things. There is only the wheel. Knowing this does not remove the obligation to drive.
The game is patterened on IndyCar racing, Formula racing is the most popular type of racing in every part of the world that is not the United States, and the US's Indianapolis 500 is one of the three most important races within it. This is ironic. So Danny Sullivan's Indy Heat is specifically a type of heat that is looking at the rest of the world. The Indianapolis 500 draws its power from places other than Indianapolis, which would itself no doubt prefer NASCAR because it is more American. Here we recognize a bit of wordplay. "Indy" refers not just to Indianapolis, but to independence. IndyCar racing is not bound to its location. It is iconoclastic. It is an individual. Its individuality comes from looking at society. From looking at the world outside.
We glimpse a world outside. These other cars want to be first. They have the same obligation we do. The mandala demands two people be first but allows only one to be. It sets someone up for failure. And because we have chosen to obey, we scream that it will not be us, blow our turbo, press onward. Damn the torpedos. Damn the man. Damn everyone but us. This is our path towards enlightenment.
In time we realize that we have gotten wrapped up in a specter. We were never racers. Were never anything but us, playing a child's game. Whatever terrors crept out of the dark in that game are still only illusions. And as we step out of our masks and look again, the track has already faded away, the thunderous roar of the engines has already faded to silence. There was never anybody here but us.
Two species of game have been identified here. Demon, then Angel, now finally, it seems, what we came here for. A god. We pick up the third controller.
The Darkman/Lord Lord/Darkman
The smallest thing's a symbol. Forgotten cult-movie superhero, Sam Raimi's claim to fame before he was famous, he waits. In shadows, of course, his face can be anyone's, so long as it is kept from the light. So long as no one sees it. Suspended in this moment, unresolved as anything but a quirk of shadow, he is at once the faceless one and the one with many faces, at once everybody and nobody.
The game says he was Dr. Peyton Westlake before an accident turned him into Darkman. But this is a lie. You know this is a lie. Sam Raimi did not create a scientist working on burn victims. He created a man can be anyone, but who hides in the shadows, and feels no pain. Peyton Westlake is the first face Darkman casts off. Liam Neeson, whose likeness forms the basis of Peyton Westlake, is merely a face this character eventually put on. Darkman, from the first instant, is just this - the idea of the unknown, in the shadows, waiting for us.
Come closer now. Approach these shadows and let them resolve to light. Pick up the controller and see that what you thought was the face of god in the light. See it melt and bubble away as mystery is replaced by the sterility of knowledge. This is just another lousy side-scroller. Another mediocre run and jump with awkward controls. So bad that advancing past the first screen is counter-intuitive.
This is not the shadowy threat we imagined. Not the creature of darkness that is us and more. This is a cheap puppet, a ridiculous charade. How could we ever have mistaken this banal chicanery for God?
Or have we? This cheap theater is inadequate, but the idea is still there. This idea of a figure in the shadows. This idea of what is hidden. The fact that our glimpse through the shadows destroys them, that Darkman cannot exist in the light, does not invalidate his existence in the dark. Truth be told, the fact that Darkman cannot be brought to light is a confirmation of the existence of a creature of the dark.
What is the substance of this god who cannot manifest? This creature that does not exist, can never be seen? The ultimate prize of cryptozoology, this is the creature that is always sought, the ultimate form of a god of desire in the postmodern era. This is the Venus of latter days, the final object of love.
We cannot look away, nor can we see. This is the shadow, the hazy image coming into view, the threshold of signal to noise. Pleasure yet to come, delayed gratification, the creature of imagination so imaginary that he cannot be real, even in the imagination. This is what stalks the shadows - the shadows themselves.
And all we can do is watch. Here, we do not get to play.