Wednesday, December 8, 2010

First Principles (Destination: Earthstar and Destiny of an Emperor)

The essential tension between culture and identity can be oversimplified thusly: Culture is the general case, and identity is the specific case. Culturally, I belong to the so-called Nintendo Generation, defined by its intersection with a relatively narrow subset of games. Individually, however, I am defined, even in video gaming terms, by idiosyncratic focus both within and without that subset. For instance, The Adventures of Lolo, a game pretty solidly outside the canon of classic NES games, has had an outsized impact on my life compared to, say, Excitebike, a classic NES game that I cannot have played more than 15 minutes of.

The two games for today, Destination: Earthstar and Destiny of an Emperor, are not games I had played before. Both, however, are pretty good games, assuming you're someone other than me. I have in the past asked, mostly as a rhetorical question, what sort of person I might be if a different set of games had intersected with my life. These games seem as good an opportunity as any to ask this question in more detail.

Destination: Earthstar is a space flight sim game. For my part, I only got into three games of this genre in my life - Wing Commander III, IV, and Prophecy. And Wing Commander: Prophecy was crap. And for that matter, I played WC3 mostly with invincibility mode on.

Space flight sims, for me, have one significant advantage over ground-based flight sims, which is that it is a lot harder to crash your craft into the ground and die a horrible death. This is not enough to overcome the fact that I just don't like the genre that much.

The genre is based on the understanding and navigation of three-dimensional space. Interestingly, this is not something video games focus heavily on. Even modern games tend not to get too wrapped up in the dynamics of the third dimension, often restraining themselves to hallways and courtyards so that one rarely has to deal meaningfully with more than two dimensions. One can even go to a game like Super Mario Galaxy - a game primarily about running around on three-dimensional objects, and find far more levels that feel 2 and 2.5 dimensional than three dimensional.

Part of this is that the third dimension is actually kind of tricky. We don't think about it all that often. This may seem like an odd claim given that we live in it, but the fact of the matter is that we rely pretty heavily on gravity to simplify things for us. Most of our life is spent moving around on what's basically a 2-D plane. Thinking beyond that is hard for a lot of people. For instance, think of a two-story house you've spent a fair amount of time in. Think of the living room in it. What room is directly above it? What part of the basement, if any, is directly below it? This is, for most people, a fairly hard question. (My parents' bedroom, for what it's worth)

Flight sims in space involve moving through what is often an arbitrarily large region of three dimensional space, in which you have completely free motion except for the fact that you're bound heavily by physics, momentum, and direction. And, generally speaking, being shot at. This, combined with the fact that flight simulators are generally for the mildly obsessive, makes them an odd combination. Part of this is one of those moments where narrative and gameplay intersect. In order to explain why you are fighting in space, you need to posit a military to do the fighting.

Military fetishism depends on a valuation of arbitrary rules and structures. The military, when fetishized as a narrative device, becomes about the baroque structure of regulation-based ethics and procedures. Accordingly, piloting a space ship in a militaristic game involves a lot of persnickety focus on fuel, physics, maneuvering, and the like. This is very different from the fantasy of flight. But it's a coherent subgenre. Star Trek uses it slightly, but its real major appearance - probably the zenith of the subgenre - was Battlestar Galactica.

I adore BSG, but the larger culture eludes me. Battlestar Galactica appeals to me precisely because it's a terminus of that aesthetic. There is no glory left in the military in BSG. It consists of hollow rituals preserved in the name of a doomed effort to preserve the larger society. Its leaders are screwed up, often wrong, and never clearly and definitively right. It takes the space military aesthetic to its endpoint, and scares us with what it finds.

But it is only able to function because of things like Star Trek, Wing Commander, and, yes, Destination: Earthstar - things that establish the space military tropes that it deconstructs. These were never part of my identity - a vague trajectory in the larger culture I was aware of, but placed no value in. And looking at it, I feel a revulsion. The arbitrary structures of authority, fetishization of violence, and fact that the games are of the category that want me to spend an awful lot of effort to have fun are all counter to what I want out of my entertainment. And more to the point, this genre, aside from just not being fun, leaves me with a strong sense that the genre itself is morally bankrupt, privileging as it does acquiescence to arbitrary authority.

But this is where things get tricky. I know I didn't think of things in these terms growing up. I didn't focus on military space sci-fi because I didn't like it. I did focus on Borges and Doctor Who and comics because I did like them. There was no great mystery or secret. It was just a series of decisions I made that happened, over time, to add up to an identity. Which is a tough thing to say, because I believe firmly in aesthetic philosophy, in the fundamental link between ethics and aesthetics, and even in the fact that there is such a thing as a correct judgment of taste. I told my class the other day that Arthur Miller is a bad playwright - a statement I stand by as a matter of declarative fact.

On the surface of it, these two things are contradictory. How can I believe in the fundamental validity of an aesthetic philosophy whose rational basis is a back formation of an essentially arbitrary set of choices?

Unless, of course, the means by which a position is developed is irrelevant to its validity...

Destiny of an Emperor is one of the earliest Japanese RPGs to make it in the US. Japanese RPGs have, in the 20 years since the game came out, risen and, if not fallen, at least meandered in a vaguely downwards direction. Here, again, some history is in order. The RPG video game has a bit of a forked history. Actually, the RPG video game and the video game were almost, but not quite, completely indistinguishable for at least some of their history. There is a simple reason for this - video games and D&D developed simultaneously and in more or less the exact same Tolkien-obsessed subculture. (Jack Chick, if he knew this, would no doubt either take his website down or be an obnoxious hypocrite)

The result is that there is an unusually long history of RPG games. In America. A tradition based on, mostly, open-ended gameplay and the ruthless development of character stats. But many moons ago, by which I mean 1986, a Japanese programming team created Dragon Quest, a knockoff of American RPGs. That was a smash success, and led to a Japanese style of RPGs. The two styles were mostly distinct, with only occasional games jumping over, of which only Final Fantasy was an absolutely massive deal. And even that had only half of its games released in the US.

Destiny of an Emperor is one of those oddball games that made it out in the US. Adequate and playable. Characteristically of JRPGs, the focus is more on a small party and defined plot. Those that argue that video games are a viable narrative form usually point to these games, because they tend to have the most ornate and thorough plots of video games. That these plots are still overly simplistic stories that are written to include as many action sequences as possible, and that the gameplay on JRPGs usually aspires to mere mediocrity.

While Destination: Earthstar, looked at in hindsight, fills me with, if not dread, a strong sense that I object, Destiny of an Emperor elicits from me a sort of appreciative nod, an acknowledgment of the secret history it represents. I never got into Japanese culture. It was a shift in geek culture I missed - resisted initially out of nothing so much as a mild sense of laziness, and by the time I got around to realizing I was on the wrong side of a culture shift, the gap that had opened up was one I never felt like I could confidently bridge.

Amusingly, I suspect strongly from talking to those who are big on Japanese culture that the gap is one I could bridge without excessive work. This is mostly because the things that seem to me utterly alienating about the gap - figuring out the basic structure of Japanese narratology, for instance - are not actually things that many people on the other side of the gap have done. The depressing fact is that a staggering amount of the fetishization of Japanese culture is seemingly done without any particular investment in a systematic understanding of the fetishized object. (See also every mass ideology ever)

My larger point here is that, by all appearances, doing so would be worthwhile. And there are numerous cases of this. Secret histories deserving of uncovering, in amidst the dead ends and traps I evaded - secret histories I view as lesser. The nature of defining history in cultural terms is that this sorting is productive. Secret histories can be uncovered and excavated. The process is not the same as experiencing them. Nor is it empty.

But what is still a fundamental issue - one too complex for me to disentangle at this stage - is how I am doing this sorting. Some system must exist for me to be able to judge the worth of knowledge yet to be learned. Somehow, I am capable of choosing between militarism and Japanese narratology. How? And what standards or rigors can this judgment be held up to?


  1. Destiny of an Emperor is different from a lot of JRPGs in that it's a video game based on a long and complex story--The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which has a lot of narrative thrown out as it is compressed into "just the fight sequences." For Japanese audiences familiar with the story, there would be a lot going on under the hood with a game like this (imagine a fun NES game based on a book, movie, or TV show license. Maybe Terminator 2, which could be a ways off in your blog).

    Taken on its own, you aren't given a good sense of time passing in the game, but the characters you control change and switch out to a different (maybe two different) generation, as you play through a historical fiction version of a war that goes on for nearly ninety years.

  2. [I told my class the other day that Arthur Miller is a bad playwright - a statement I stand by as a matter of declarative fact.]

    And it can be objectively said that it's a bad critic who's so impressed with himself that he can throw away other people's work and opinions in a simple piss take, without anyone who witnessed it learning a thing about the medium in question or the critic himself.

  3. A worse one that takes a sentence out of context and builds up an entirely speculative case against the author based on it.