Friday, May 21, 2010

Mercury Shooting Through Every Degree (Battle of Olympus and Battleship)

Exploration is a paradoxical goal for a video game. Indeed, it is a paradoxical goal in general - after all, it's not so much a thin line as no line whatsoever between exploration and being lost.

I spent the evening having dinner with a dear friend I shall not see again before I move. It was to be a longer hanging out, but packing has me exhausted, and I simply was not up for more than a bite to eat. I was about to drive home, but my wrists took me elsewhere, and I found myself in a Starbucks reading Julie Powell's latest, Cleaving, about which I doubt we will see a movie. Julie and Julia was the inspiration for this project, not because it was a great book, but because it was a good book, a solid book, and a foundation for my own mad ideas.

Cleaving is a good book. You can tell by the fact that nobody likes it on Amazon. No, I'm serious. Where Julie and Julia was a fun life-affirming romp about cooking French food, Cleaving is as dark as you'd expect a book about butchery to be. It is a book about adultery, possibly about the dissolution of a marriage (I've not finished it yet), about borderline alcoholism, certainly about obsession, and about a woman who finds a strange solace from it all in dismembering dead animals. It's dark, strange, idiosyncratic, and personal in a way the cheery performativity of Julie and Julia can only hope to be. I love it far, far more.

Sitting in Starbucks, a place that served as a happy treat for a year or so of marriage, then as a refuge for half a year of splitsville, then as an indulgence/convenience for half a year of owning a super-automatic espresso maker, reading a book that falls firmly and cheerily into one of my vice genres (Clever semi-chick-lit confessional non-fiction. The other is procedural thrillers), I felt something approaching contentment.

All moves are into the unknown. I'll be living across the street from the house I grew up in. Third grade through my third and final year of high school. Eight years, plus a decade and one of where I returned to on summers and Christmases. Home, as they say. Yes, my own place, but it will be trivial for my parents to bother me, and only my mother's deep vampiric tendencies with regards to the outdoors are likely to prevent drop-ins.

But I'm surging forth into unemployment, not having local friends, and the future in general. It's a blind stab. In an alternate universe, where I write the Packaging Project, today's post is about the austere unknowability of masses of brown cardboard boxes containing one's worldly possessions. But this is the video gaming blog, so instead we have The Battle of Olympus, a game in the classic NES "wander around trying to figure out what the fuck you're doing" tradition. Which, actually, is just as good a metaphor as boxes.

What distinguishes the NES era of these exploration-style games from their modern counterparts is that in contemporary games, people have basically learned the virtues of actually leading the player around so they have some idea of where to go next and what they're trying to do. In the NES era, you tended to get a sword and and a starting village with no useful equipment and be expected to figure things out for yourself. This is, by and large, considerably less fun than the alternative "have a clue what you're doing" approach, but it does make it a perfectly good metaphor for plowing into the future.

It is difficult to stress the degree to which failing to find a job after 11 years of higher education is just a depressing outcome. Because it really is. And so I don't know if what I'm doing now is returning home, moving forward, going back, or standing still. I've no idea. There's no map. It's actually worse than Battle for Olympus, which at least places helpful NPCs here and there to tell you that you're not strong enough to go a given direction yet. Such NPCs are rarely found in reality.

Battleship provides a different metaphor for exploration. For one thing, the exploration is heavily directed. For another thing, there are explosions. For a third, and this is perhaps the most significant change, a system of mutual interpolation is added to the mix. As you explore, you are also explored. There is a metaphor for sex here. I am not taking it. (Except inasmuch as I just did). But here, the act of exploration turns dark and destructive - a destruction that is turned inward and outward at the same time. Make no mistake - Battleship is self-destructive, because to sustain the game through your own explorations is to submit to attack. As long as one plays, one is in danger. To learn the terrain of the other one must risk being unmade.

This is perhaps the best metaphor yet for moving. To find the future, we must unmake ourselves, split all that we own into boxes. To know the future, we must sift through the past, throw things out, seal things up. There is no moving on without sinking our battleship.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Slower Sort of Lightspeed: Battle Chess and Battle Tank

Electronics are inexorably linked to the speed of light, and with it the notion of high speed. It is implicit in the design of video games, where a flick of a controller button is expected to show up in real time on the screen. It is thus a surprise, sometimes, to go back and remember how slow video games used to be. The most memorable case is, of course, sprite slowdown - the tendency of the NES to grind to a painful halt if there were too many enemies for it to process efficiently. This tendency - a bug by any measure - is in fact one of the iconic experiences of that generation of video gaming - sufficiently so that pseudo-retrogames such as Mega Man 9 deliberately add in code for flicker and sprite slowdown for the purpose of authenticity to the gaming experience emulated.

But the idea of slowness in this era of video games extends well beyond that. Exhibit A - the tedious stretch of time that is Battle Chess - a game that exists for the sole purpose of tedious slowness. The sole hook of Battle Chess is that instead of just capturing pieces, you see the pieces battle each other. I should stress the verb here - see. This is not Archon, where the battles are controllable, rather, these are several second animations that play every time you capture a piece. Sometimes they are mildly amusing. For the first time. Add to this, however, the fact that all of the pieces walk across the board with a slow methodical plod, and, in a few lucky cases (namely when the knight moves) spend time getting out of each other's way, and you get a game of chess that is tediously slow.

I am aware of the irony implicit in complaining about the slow pace of a game of chess. Chess is not, after all, where one goes for white-knuckled thrills. But seriously, this is fucking painful.

What is strange about Battle Chess, however, is that the ostensible money shots - the animations - are in fact the most tedious portion of the game. Battle Chess is in many ways a sexed down version of Peek-A-Boo Poker, in which the ostensible game is primarily understood as a hassle distracting you from the ostensible content, namely, in Peek-A-Boo Poker, lo-fi porn, and in Battle Chess, lo-fi combat animations. The content, in all cases, is non-interactive. Effectively these games are poor quality VCRs that one has to struggle to make play the desired content.

This pattern is notable in two regards. First, it makes for absolutely awful game design - a realization that culminated in the ill-fated "interactive movies" fad of mid-90s. (An entirely parallel track exists with the equally ill-fated laser disc games of the 1980s, of which Dragon's Lair, which will make an appearance in time, is the most known). Second, and more interestingly for the purposes of a blog rambling about video games as cultural memory work, this structure is the exact opposite of actual tedium.

Actual tedium is the impatience between events. For instance, I defended my dissertation on April 30th. I leave Florida on May 26th. These intervening days are boredom. They are the very definition of boredom. Now, mind you, that is not to say I am unhappy. Merely that I am in a period between two major events. And in that in-between period, there is not a lot to do. Whereas this video game tedium is the events between waits. Of course, with Battle Chess you get the worst of both worlds.

Battle Tank, on the other hand, is a game of the sort I've discussed before - a game that is without question interesting, but not one that I am necessarily interested in. It is also a very slow game, but it is a slowness recognizable as the slowness of life. Or even, perhaps, the slowness of suspense. Battle Tank is a tank combat game. One of the things you quickly learn about tanks playing Battle Tank is that they are slow and cumbersome, and that combat between them is a long process of maneuvering to try to create a line of sight to attack with. The game thus involves much circling around, waiting for an attack.

It is a much closer simulation of my life - chasing encounters that never quite happen, despite my best efforts.

Perhaps that's why I don't want to play again.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Holy Ontological Narrative Concepts, Batman (Batman, Batman: Return of the Joker, and Batman Returns)

It is a mistake to treat Batman as if he is a character. Batman, along with Superman, is the apotheosis of the Modernist "machine made out of words" image of writing. Batman is a set of narrative functions - a set of capabilities. He is defined not as Bruce Wayne but as a particular mode of narrative. Ontologically speaking, Batman always wins.

Grant Morrison gets this. That is why his Batman stories strain all limits of credulity in favor of sheer awesomeness. Batman vs. the Devil. Batman reincarnating through history as Cave Man Batman, Witch Hunter Batman, and Pirate Batman. Batman vs. gods. Batman is axiomatically defined as that which wins. And so telling a good Batman story amounts to making that victory something interesting - not something unlikely.

This is also where the whole illusion of virtual reality breaks down. Because seriously, nobody wants to be Batman. Neal Stephenson observes the crux of the problem: "Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad." The joke, of course, is that nobody does. Why? Because nobody wants a fatal disease, to move to a monastery in China, or, as is perhaps most applicable to Batman, to have their entire families wiped out. The price of ontological supremacy is just too high.

Or so one thinks. One can, I suppose, methodically learn a certain measure of superheroing. There is a story I remember from This American Life some time ago of a woman who systematically learned all the skills you would need, basically, to be Batman. Because she was guided by her dreams of being a superhero. The story ends with her failing to get a job at the CIA for unknown reasons. Or perhaps more accurately, the story does not end that way. Ontological supremacy is a treacherous road. Even when you lose out at it, the story stubbornly continues. By the end, we learn she is paralyzingly afraid of nobody liking her. It's a beautiful story.

A lifetime of playing video games and reading comics prepares one somewhat differently for one's ontological fragility. For one thing, it makes you not so ambitious. Fat geek is a very manageable lifestyle. One does not expect triumph. This is the crucial thing about video games - one is prepared for a life of perpetual failure by them.

But a Batman video game remains odd there. Three of them also remain odd. None of them capture Batman in a meaningful sense. The first, a movie adaptation from the basically worthless Sunsoft, a company that basically only made licensed games, is a droll side scroller with generic enemies. It has little to recommend it beyond a reasonably entertaining wall jump, but it's actually reasonably playable, and in a world where I had to buy my video games were I to own it I might actually put the thumb grease into beating it. But as a Batman game, it is fundamentally inadequate. Batman punches people and they burst into flames. OK - that part is actually pretty good. But Batman misses jumps. Batman spends a while trying to figure out how to get to the ledge above him. Batman mistimes a punch and gets run into by an enemy who runs cheerily on and is never caught. Batman falls in combat.

No. Just no.

Batman: Return of the Joker is an essentially unplayable piece of dogshit released for the sole purpose of cashing in one last time for Sunsoft before the Batman license went to Konami. In it, you get Contra style powerups that allow you to machine gun fire Batterangs in increasingly complicated swirly patterns.

But it is Konami's Batman Returns that captures the problem most perfectly. Batman Returns is a perfectly serviceable beat-em-up. But Batman is not a beat-em-up. Batman does not walk calmly through the streets of Gotham in a linear fashion in the hopes that if he takes out enough yard trash he'll eventually fight a super-villain. Batman does not fight crime in levels. He does not restrict his combat to that which can be done with two buttons of a controller. He does not walk the streets. That just isn't what a Batman story is. You can make a blue and... well... blue sprite that has bat ears. But you can't tell a Batman story where Batman's capabilities are finitely definable.

There is no being Batman, because being is itself a circumscription of the essence of the character. To conceive of Batman is to conceive of victory. Over anything. Definition itself, if need be. Batman is not a character in a video game. Nor is he the structure surrounding said character. Batman is the off button. The final teleology. The trump card that can not only win the game, but dismantle it.

And when he punches people, they catch fire.