Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ouroborous (Cliffhanger and Clu Clu Land)


Clu Clu Land and Cliffhanger, taken together, span essentially the entire history of the Nintendo. Clu Clu Land was one of the original 1985 games, along with (of what we've played so far), 10-Yard Fight and Baseball. Cliffhanger, on the other hand, was an extremely late game - November of 1993, only thirteen games were definitively released afterwards. (I should insert here a thanks to a sister project, Nintendo Relaunch, who are playing through the entirety of NES games in the order they were released, beginning in 18 days, and whose "order of release" page has proven helpful on several occasions while generating facts like the above)

This presents the opportunity for another historicist post, in which we talk about secret histories, the true nature of the past, and all that good stuff. And to be fair, our analysis of history has stuck largely to 1988, with an occasional outbreak of 1990. 1985, with its Cold War paranoia, rung itself in with the Soviet Union on its third General Secretary in three years, casting around chaotically in the wake of Leonid Brezhnev. The doomsday clock spent the year set to 11:57, its second closest approach to armageddon, and its worst since the glorious atomic paranoias of the 1950s. Musically, it was the good old days - The Smiths released "Meat is Murder," while The Cure, Sisters of Mercy, and New Order all put out seminal albums, which was almost, but not quite, enough to remove the stink of We Are the World. "Shout" and "Take on Me" were two of the five biggest hit singles of the year, along with We Are the World and a Foreigner song, leaving Madonna's "Into the Groove" with the bizarre and titanic task of resolving the dialectic. In film, Back to the Future reigned supreme, but #2 and #3 both went to Sylvester Stallone, who was up to Rambo II and Rocky IV, indicating that both series were on the wane.

Fast forward to 1993, and the Soviet Union has collapsed in the chaos of 1991, and we were well into the decade of Boris Yeltsin. Where 1995 was best illustrated in middle-period Reagan, 1993 was early Clinton, an outbreak of hope wholly unsuited to the times. The 1990s were, as we were rapidly coming to learn, a dead decade, full of stagnating failure that could only be looked at nostalgically from the uncompromising hell of millennial dawn. Indeed, in most regards, we were beginning a dry rehearsal for the millenium, complete with proto-9/11 in the World Trade Center. (A digression here could be inserted about the style of historical recollection that indulges in such narrative leveling, reducing the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the deaths of six people, a group that consisted of one salesman, three maintenance guys, a secretary, and a receiving agent, to a mere historical footnote. This despite the fact that the 1993 bombing culminated in a 2006 legal decision that declared, with startling and counterintuitive precision, that the terrorists were exactly 32% responsible for the bombing, while the Port Authoirty was 68%. Such a footnote would serve as a reminder that any given path through history is determined less by the actual content of the past and more by the present-day vicissitudes of what objects and moments we opt to orient the story around. The families of Monica Smith, Bob Kirkpatrick, Bill Macko, Stephen Knapp, John DiGiovanni, and Wilfredo Mercado have a vividly different 1993. Such a digression would reposition the entry to be about the sheer narcissism of memory, however, which is not my intention, and so I will not engage in it.) Musically, 1993 was on the surface a mirror of 1985. Depeche Mode hit #1 on the US charts, marking the point where Goth/New Wave peaked in the US. The 80s appear, at a glance, to be alive and well - New Order, Pat Benetar, and The Cure all released albums. But on closer inspection, the ground was changing in that irritating way that history does, where chunks of the past survive fully functional long after heir successors have arrived to make them extinct. Alternative music was well under way - Nirvana released In Utero on the same day that The Cure released their live album, and Kurt Cobain spent most of 1993 with less than a year to live. Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins released their seminal pre-magnum opus albums. And then in film, the top ten included such luminaries as Schindler's List, Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia, Jurassic Park, Indecent Proposal, and Cliffhanger, the last starring Sylvester Stallone.

We've now measured a circle of 1985 to 1993. So, in the manner that defines our project, we will begin with Clu Clu Land. Clu Clu Land is a fairly straightforward 2-D maze-run - not quite a Pac-Man clone, but certainly a Pac-Man cousin. The dots are invisible and have to be found, the maze is considerably more open, and turning is reduced to "turn left or right." This last point is rare in video games, due largely to the design of the joystick or D-pad. Reducing gameplay to contextual turning destroys the unity of the D-pad, turning it to four buttons where we normally treat it as two. Accordingly, it's usually not done - the major recent exception is Resident Evil. (1996. Deep Blue defeats Kasparov, while in music, the alternative wave that began in England and transmuted itself in Seattle has clearly crested, receded, and married off its dying embers to Gwen Stefani) In the case of Clu Clu Land, the reasoning is somewhat stranger - one moves by sticking out a claw that catches the posts forming the bulk of the maze and spins your avatar around them, thus one can simply commence turning clockwise or counterclockwise, as opposed to selecting a direction as such.

With its simple control scheme and level design, Clu Clu Land fits firmly in the tradition of arcade games that the NES marks the end of. It is part of an aesthetic movement that its creation is an inherent part of the death of. Much as (we continue our circle) Rambo II and Rocky IV are iconic steps in the decline of themselves. Indeed, Sylvester Stallone's career is defined by this phenomenon. Stallone broke out as an all-purpose auteur, writing and starring in Rocky before going the full monty and writing, directing, and starring in Rocky II. Having defined his career as an auteur, he proceeded to impotently put out unambitious action flicks such as Cliffhanger, which he script doctored to its well-regarded and classic form.

Cliffhanger was adapted into an utterly awful video game - a clumsy side-scroller that was thrown off as an unconsidered NES port of a game designed for higher end consoles. Cliffhanger is thus the half-assed second version of a half-assed licensed game. It is mediocre because of the decline of the NES - because it exists as part of the decline and collapse of something. But this was true of Clu Clu Land. The NES was a product defined by the failure of the Atari 2600 and the so-called video game bust. It was designed to be the antidote to a failed moment of video games - to bring about the end of an era.

The NES was busy dying from the day it was born, like all of us. On February 20, 1967, Kurt Cobain had less than 28 years to live. Death is a condition afflicting us from day one. Life is invariably terminal. Death is defined by two characteristics. It is always approaching, and spends the overwhelming, massive bulk of its time not happening. You will eventually die, and it is extraordinarily unlikely to happen today.

The bulk of points along a line - an infinite number of them, in fact - are not endpoints. Birth and death are two instants in a set of infinity. But these two points mark where we measure from. We insert milestones - birthdeaths along the way. Getting a NES. Selling it because I don't play it anymore. But in the end, this line is measured from two points - two horizons of experience.

How can we circle this line? How can we free ourselves and start anywhere? How can we convert life into metaphor, into semantic play that loops joyously and infinitely around us? The answer, let's be clear, is madness. Quite literally. We can unhinge our minds, experience the world as metaphor and myth. The result makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, to live anything visible as a normal life. It's the decision of excessive dreamers, of the mad and burnt out. Borges describes the phenomenon in The Zahir. The story concerns a fictionalized Borges growing endlessly more obsessed with a coin that happens to be the mythic Zahir, the object that replaces all experienced reality with an obsession around it. As Borges succumbs to this obsession, he asks the central question - is this OK? He reasons that it is, because he'll never know.

But an earlier moment in the story, perhaps, captures the heart of it more. The Zahir, Borges notes, symbolizes free will - a coin can be changed into anything. It is the ultimate mutability, the ultimate alchemy, the ultimate act of magic. A universal symbol. A simple, circular coin.

In Clu Clu Land, you swim around obtaining gold bars that, in classic Nintendo fashion, share the same basic graphical template that would later be used for Rupees in the Legend of Zelda, itself a bare variation of the coin from Super Mario Bros. The only difference is that the coin is slightly rounder - more circular. More looped.

Clu Clu Land's name is a romanization of the Japanese Kuru Kuru, an onomatopoeia meaning to go around and around.

It's an optical illusion. A trick of the light. Birth and death appear to be endpoints. Only when we balance ourselves precariously on the rim of the circle, stand just so, looking straight down the edge, does it look like a line. Move but an inch in any direction and you'll see the truth. You can measure a circle starting anywhere. Birth and death are nothing more than where you happened to start.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Marshall McLuhan Would Think This Entry is Cool (Clash at Demonhead and Classic Concentration)


Clash at Demonhead is not so much a classic game as it is directly referenced in Scott Pilgrim, which is sort of the same thing, but not really. As a game, it's got some distinctly interesting elements - a semi-open-ended level structure, a lot of exploration, a giant flying skeleton man with a wickedly cool scarf. Which probably means it's more interesting to talk about it in terms of Scott Pilgrim.

Scott Pilgrim is one of a handful of major works to embrace the 8-bit video gaming generation that this blog meanders around. The result is thrilling - a tour de force that is rightly considered one of the top graphic novels of the last decade. The comic is, in essence, a story about a 20something who grew up on NES games actually growing up, though, satisfyingly, not in a way that involves rejecting his past. So the comic interprets things like jealousy, learning to function in a relationship, and the vagaries of memory in terms of 8-bit video games.

It's cute. If you look at it right, it's the thing in the world most similar to the Nintendo Project. If I have one complaint, it is that it is a bit too credulous about the idea that video games are good. It embraces the triumphant and visceral thrill of a good game (Sex Bob-Omb is very possibly the greatest possible take on the excitement that was successfully built up about the introduction of the Bob-Omb as a new monster, and the associated training this experience gave a generation about the sacred feminine). But it does not quite embrace the stultifying, irritating stupidity of a bad game. In the end, it commits the same fallacy of memory that it observes in its protagonist: it reduces the past to the good bits.

But what interests me here is its particular foregrounding of Clash at Demonhead - a reference that is considerably more obscure than is bread and butter for Scott Pilgrim. Why pick a relatively arcane video game reference here? What relationship exists between Envy Adams and this game that is, charitably, a minor classic? The answer to this question constitutes the primary theme of today's entry.

This question bears a formal resemblance to the central question of the game Classic Concentration, which is "where's the other thing that looks like this." The two, on a purely semantic level, do not resemble each other particularly, but in truth they are specific cases of the same general question, which is the question of matching. The comparison of Envy Adams to Clash of the Demonhead evaluates two items to try to identify a match, whereas the main move of Classic Concentration is to attempt to find an object that completes a match.

This is an essential feature of human reason. Arguments proceed by finding points of confluence and similarity. We're back at "What's that?" (We've always been here. A stationary vantage point around which things move produces the illusion of movement.) But here we have a different question - how many identifications are necessary to produce knowledge? Again, Classic Concentration proves a surprisingly apt metaphor here. The game proceeds through a standard card matching memory game. If you can find two cards that match, you get to go again.

In the NES version, the content of the matches becomes wholly irrelevant. The game mimics the game show it's named after, and matches retain the prizes from TV - a spa trip, a piano, a TV, or a VCR. The player will never receive these prizes. They are empty placeholders. Mere steps along a larger goal. Likewise, the process of identifying pairs is not an end in and of itself. It is not sufficient to observe the pairing of Envy Adams and Clash at Demonhead. One must find more points to formulate an argument.

In Classic Concentration, as matches are made, a rebus is uncovered. The game is won by solving the rebus. Again, the metaphor is apt. The matches serve as steps towards identifying some other object. One does not need to uncover all the matches to win. One needs to get enough of an understanding of the image that one can fill the rest in. Exhaustive research is not necessary.

So it is not sufficient to observe the pairing of Envy Adams and Clash at Demonhead. But it is, on the other hand, not necessary to exhaustively solve all aspects of the puzzle. Something can be left undone. Somewhere along this continuum is the moment of communication. A mythical balance point where the exact minimum amount of information necessary is offered. The benefits of this sweet spot are many. For one, it maximizes the involvement of the reader. Because the reader must fill in gaps, the reader invests herself in the work. This investment is a fundamental human pleasure - it's what underlies puzzle solving as a form of entertainment. A puzzle, after all, is just a communication calibrated perfectly for that sweet spot - something that gives the reader just enough to complete the puzzle.

For another, it is efficient for the writer. It minimizes my work. This is to my advantage. Concentration has never been my specialty. I mean this both in that I have only a moderately good memory, and thus suck at the game, and in that I'm an ADD lunatic who's work method essentially amounts to "do a sufficiently large number of stuff so that all the distractions are still productive." Or, occasionally, "caffeinate heavily, and stay up as late as it takes," because staying up all night is much like actually paying attention. In a pinch, I fall back to plan C, which is "hope you don't actually need an infinite number of monkeys." (Information takes on a fractal structure. What is the bare minimum number of monkeys necessary to produce my communication?)

Except, of course, that the tipping point is hard to find. As the joke goes, I apologize for writing such a long blog entry, but I did not have time to write a short one. The issue of concentration and attention is actually relatively subtle, not well-represented by a line, which is, of course, a simplistic construction built out of two points, when in fact the reality is likely considerably more complex. In essence, we have attempted to solve the puzzle too soon - with insufficient data. We've filled in blanks less with reason than with pure guesswork. In actuality, reaching that magical point of minimum information is really hard. We need more matches.

Some days I have that in me. Other days, I want to give up on producing art and go back to the loves that motivate this. Why am I writing a blog when I could just be goofing off playing video games? Clash at Demonhead deserved more than the half hour I gave it. It's a good game. But because it is classified as "fun," it has to take a backseat to "work" like this blog, grading, preparing for class, etc. This is ridiculous.

Perhaps, then, other goals should be considered. Why fetishize the moment of comprehension. What if instead we go a step back. Come to the brink of comprehension - that moment of communication, then delete one key piece of information. Leave one crucial match unfound or unexplained. Then deliver the end product to the reader. The reader would come close to understanding. Fill in much of the rebus. Make much sense of it. But they would fall just short. They wouldn't quite be able to resolve the pieces. There would be one irreducible, unsolvable mystery. Tantalizingly close to a solution. Would this be art?

Do we know enough to say?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

We Built it Just for You (Circus Caper and City Connection)


As primal fears go, clowns are an odd one, mostly because they're profoundly non-primal. While things like the dark, falls, being buried alive, and abandonment are quite literally primal, existing the moment we crawled out of the sea, clowns did not. Clowns, although they have their antecedents, are a profoundly modern development. One does not hear of people with searing fears of Commedia Dell'arte. Although Wikipedia claims Ute mythology has a cannibalistic clown monster called the Siat, but quite frankly, I think it's lying. Clowns are not primal. Which is odd, considering the sheer level of terror they produce.

Circus Caper ties straight into this fear. A flagrant rip-off of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, a boy and a girl go to the circus, the girl is kidnapped, and the boy has to punch a bunch of evil circus men to rescue her.

It's awful. The usual lazy awfulness of a bad NES game. Not even funny awful. Just bad. Awkward controls, absurd difficulty, unforgiving continues, it does the full set of shitty NES tricks. Which is as good a time as any to reflect on what makes really bad games bad. (Video games are unlike families. With video games, bad ones are all alike, and good ones are each unique.)

(This may not be the first time we have elaborated upon this. That's OK. The Nintendo Project is not linear. Eventually I will revise the earliest entries, written before I understood how to write the Nintendo Project, incorporating thought from the end of the Project forward, so that the Nintendo Project becomes a secret history of itself, finished not because it has reached an end, but because it has become an Ouroboros, consuming its own starting point. In his introduction to Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire, Neil Gaiman quotes Alan Moore quoting Charles Fort: One measures a circle starting anywhere.)

Generally speaking, bad video games are bad for one of two reasons: either they behave with tedious predictability, or they are excessively difficult to predict. The former charge is the one leveled against casual games - when hardcore gamers look down their nose at Bejeweled players, this is what they complain about - Bejeweled, in their view, is too simple, too easy to anticipate. The latter is the problem with most bad NES games. Jumping mechanics that move with torturous slowness across an arc larger than is necessary for most purposes. Attack mechanics that make it functionally impossible to fight without taking damage. Hit detection that makes ledges as difficult to reach as enemies are to dodge. All of these serve to make the game frustrating to play because the consequences of one's actions can no longer be predicted with sufficient accuracy. Circus Caper commits every one of these sins.

But what makes Circus Caper bad is, interestingly, also what makes clowns scary. Stay with me here. Research on coulrophobia has suggested that fear of clowns springs from a difficulty of visual processing on the part of young children. When a young child has begun to recognize human facial features and to read facial expressions, confrontation with the exaggerated distortions of clown makeup are terrifying because they overwhelm the nascent visual faculty. In other words, clowns are scary because they are a partial recognition. The same principle is what makes Circus Caper so bad - the game is close enough to the familiar rhythms of video games to be recognized, but far enough that dependence on these rhythms will get you shot. The result is intensely unpleasant.

This phenomenon can also be understood as an excessively wide uncanny valley. As we grow older, we learn to distinguish between human faces and their representations, and exaggerated representations such as clowns stop being as big an issue because we know enough to not try processing them as human faces. The uncanny valley occurs when a simulated face is realistic enough that it does not instinctively get processed as a representation, but is still not sufficiently accurate to be processed as a face.

All of this suggests we are circling a larger and more fundamental problem. (A statement that could serve as the motto for the Nintendo Project.) Taking a more macro view, this problem is recognizable as one of the fundamental problems of existence: the problem of how to delineate figure from ground. In other words, "What's that?" At this vast scale, the problem is not so much intractable as omnipresent - a question so fundamental that it is impossible to see where to begin answering it. Any line we take seems immediately to start crossing with other lines, forming a densely packed web that sprawls across imaginary space. This non-Euclidean horror, which whispered deep in the mind of H.P. Lovecraft, is what Deleuze and Guattari came to name "rhizome."

The mind strains to impose reason upon the problem, and in doing so reiterate the problem on an ever larger scale. For a moment, we imagine that these roads converge - that there exists a pattern that draws them towards unity. Across the space behind our eyes they streak, etchings glowing with bright golden light, until they converge into a pool of light, a point of light, a nexus of roads that we may call "city."

Here in this cluster we can move, if not with freedom, with efficiency. In 2008, well off the anticipated schedule of such things, the eschaton quietly gained critical mass when, for the first time in human history, it became the case that more people lived in cities than not. What are the consequences of this fact on human consciousness? The pastoral, long a source of fascination, will surely wither in the face of this. But will this be the withering of death, or rather a pruning back, as a winemaker removes branches of her vine to strengthen the fruit that survives?

The pull of urbanization is, in essence, the reason that Obama won the 2008 election. His politics had essentially nothing to do with it. There was no significant change in the views of people. Rather, there was a significant change in the pool of people voting. Urban voters are more liberal. Increasing the number of urban voters increases the strength of the more liberal party. It's simple. The underlying cause? Cities are agents of change and upheaval. Cities are what culture, heresy, revolution, and art come out of. Art may be inspired by the pastoral, written in the pastoral, it may praise the pastoral, but art only exists because of the city and its ability to distribute it. Even in the digital age - especially in the digital age - the consolidation of resources offered by the city is crucial.

But as we turn down this road, we realize that our nexus is less firm than we had hoped. The etchings of light are moving. And beyond that, we come to realize that this is not a mere two dimensional space. Etchings run parallel and beneath each other, across multiple levels. It is increasingly difficult to situate ourselves. Where we are going and where we have been is an issue. We begin marking our territory with words and descriptors, doggerel, if you'll forgive the vulgar pun. Granted now the luxury of knowing where we have been, we can travel with more freedom. But this freedom is short-lived. Quickly the specter of repetition arises. It's a frightening problem - repetition pushes the known into strangeness. A rose is a rose is a rose is a clown. Or, worse, from a writer's perspective, into tedium.

Eventually, due to the constraints of topic, the stretches of new road grow slender. Obstacles close in. The nature of a city is that identity is a tough property to maintain. The other circles around in close proximity, policing your every move. And then there are the stranger issues - odd roadblocks that pop up and stop you in your tracks. All the same, the drive to reach new points intensifies. The last shreds of the topic become all the more attractive, all the more alluring. The city fades to a few points and a frantic rush to reach them.

Eventually there is but one point left. Let's call it City Connection, a 1988 port of a 1985 Japanese arcade game by Jaleco. But what's that? Where do we find it?

Have we already been there after all?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dispatches from the Software Etc. of Babel (Chou and Chubby Cherub)

Update: Alex Reed of ThouShaltNot has helpfully hosted the existent songs of the Peyote Foundation (Including a sixth song I had missed when I wrote the entry) and provided a few insights into the various rumors regarding their past. That information can be found here.

Stumbling about recessed folders of my hard drive, I discovered a five-song EP from The Peyote Foundation. No amount of Googling provides insight here - one organization by that name exists in Arizona, but they are a drug legalization activist group, and do not appear to record music. The music itself is, put simply, bizarre. Two tracks appear to be the stoned ramblings of... someone set to music. One consists of audio of a baby being dismembered in a cave (presumably simulated). The other two tracks might arguably be called songs, although if one is to do that one has to note that they are not designed to be fun experiences. On the whole, they sound like weird, underground experiments - too produced to quite be done on a lark, too insane to quite be done seriously. At times the voices are oddly familiar - as though I could place them as part of another band. Mostly, it's just a mysterious and unfamiliar wave of sound.

I mention this because the discovery of mysterious and potentially authorless texts is a surprisingly frequent occurrence of late. The other day, as I walked to my front door, leaves of weeds in my yard were littered with torn scraps of paper with printing on them. Oddly, the paper settled directly on the leaves, looking as though words were growing from my yard. The scraps were small enough that context could not be determined - a word or two at most complete. The rest was negative space and graphemic fragments. Inevitably, I wondered what message was here, although I doubted an author beyond the wind...

And then there is Chou, a game that survived my attempt to purge my games folder of unlicensed and import games before I started. Clearly this was not entirely successful. But Chou remains deeply strange. Loading it, you see a graphic of a witch crashing into a butterfly. Then comes highly stylized Japanese text that would be difficult to read even if I could read Japanese. Then comes the game, which is a space shooter, Gradius-style, in which you appear to be a butterfly. No attempts to Google this game succeeded. I have no idea what it is, who made it, whether it saw a US release, or, really, anything at all. I assume that the title is a misnomer, except that one translation for Chou is "Butterfly." Although apparently the Japanese text does not look much like "butterfly."

The game is unremarkable - I'd have assumed it merely obscure except that it had no copyright information or anything on it. Not even a year of release - it may well be some modern game made in a retro style - several such NES games exist. The game is not so bad as to obviously be an amateur attempt, nor is it good enough that I have significant hope of a secret cult following. Truth told, it is the perfect game for the position it finds itself in - cryptic, mysterious, even a bit ineffable.

One of the supposed proofs of God's existence is the watchmaker analogy. The argument is simple - if you walked along the beach and found a watch, you would assume the existence of a watchmaker. Therefore you should assume the existence of a creator for the vastly more complex world. Where the watchmaker analogy fails is that it merely justifies why the existence of God should be considered - not why it is necessary. It is a compelling argument for God as a hypothesis. Nothing more.

But how much deference do we owe this hypothesis? If we were to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to the archipelago of Tristan da Cunha, the most remote settled place in the world, and were to further land at Inaccessible Island, an island that is not inaccurately named, and were to voyage up the 1000 foot cliffs that block progress from the beach, and there at the heart of Inaccessible Island were to find a watch in seemingly perfect condition, would we assume a watchmaker? How many watchmakers must be found and asked before Occam's Razor starts to dictate that an alternative hypothesis is in order? At what point in a failed quest to seek the divine do alternative hypotheses grow appealing?

On one level, certain facts present themselves. The music in my mp3 collections comes from one of three sources. I can rule out that I downloaded or ripped the Peyote Foundation, which means the mp3s must have been given to me by one of two people. I can ask them what they know of the Peyote Foundation. Likewise, whatever problems exist in judging Chou, it is clearly a game that has some prior source. Even in the (essentially impossible) case that the game exists only because someone delineated a certain string of bits as a ROM file and discovered that these bits constituted a playable game, the object has a lineage.

Stanley Fish points out, in arguing that authorial intent matters in the reading of literature, that it is only when we assume an author that it is possible to discern meaning. In his own twist on the watchmaker analogy, he argues that if you are walking along the beach and see a formation of rocks that reads "HELP," you only assume that this is a distress signal as a consequence of assuming that the rocks were placed there by a person. If you assume that the rocks are a fluke of natural processes, you assume no message, and do not seek to interpret.

This thing called Chou, these things called The Peyote Foundation's songs, they are arbitrary strings of digits that already existed in some Platonic state. Binary code is a misnomer - these files are, in the end, just numbers. These numbers correspond to game and song only because of a given interpretive method that names them. Chou could just as easily be a novel or a photo with a different encryption. The watchmaker then is not God but Adam, wielding the mad power of names.

But here our lexicon starts to fail us. The given names - Chou, Peyote Foundation - somehow fail to separate thing from other. The watchmaker hypothesis, still better than the alternatives, seems woefully inadequate. The names signify nothing but the objects before me - tell me nothing save that there is something here.

Out of context, the strangeness of the object comes forth. Why does this butterfly work its way through space? Why can it shoot things? What was the witch? Why is this man talking about turning into a butterfly, or not being a caterpillar? It is not that such incommensurabilities are absent with context. But context, at least, gives us something else to look at besides the cracks.

Or perhaps context simply eats away the glamour surrounding the scene. The watchmaker hypothesis is, in the end, the belief that all mysteries are meant to be solved. No matter that Godel, Heisenberg, and Turing laid waste to that possibility decades ago. The human brain ill-accepts the possibility of a code that cannot be cracked. Adding even the ghost of an author intoxicates.

But authors are a difficult bunch. One never really knows where one stands with an author. Whether the author is holding cards to the chest, whether she knows more than she's saying. Or, perhaps more troublingly, we know for certain that the author does know more than she's saying. Authors lie. We have to. Right from the first, the moment we suggest "I," we're lying. I'm not here. I wrote this on Wednesday, September 26, 2010, at 8:27 PM, Eastern Standard Time, at my parents' house in Newtown, Connecticut while my mother prepared a pot of french press coffee so we can watch the season premiere of Castle. You are not. You are reading it at some later date. I've moved on. "I" denote nothing more than a tomb in which I've buried an old identity, and with it all of my myriad of secrets.

But words are a poor tomb. Meant to express, word tombs inevitably haunt, just as I am clattering around now, long after I've been buried. This is an important realization, both to the Nintendo Project, and in general. And, actually, if you'll forgive the discursion, Chubby Cherub is an excellent illustration of this.

Chubby Cherub is an awful game (listed by Seanbaby as the 15th worst Nintendo Game ever). It consists of an eponymous fat angel who flies around and throws hearts at dogs, who are apparently complete bastards who hate the heavenly host and try to kill it. The eponymous cherub is a fairly standard depiction of the cherub - a sort of fat cupid angel, inevitably infantile, essentially the most harmless and cuddly variety of angels our culture has yet thrown up.

Here is a description of the Cherubim from Ezekiel:
They had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf's foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass. And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings. Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward. As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle. Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies... As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning
Burning wheels of fire with four faces and animal features are relatively dissimilar to flying overweight babies. The word "cherub" has entombed this concept though. And yet, beneath the surface of Chubby Cherub, something uncanny writhes. Dead? Perhaps as dead as an idea can be.

This is the awful mystery of Chou and the Peyote Foundation. It is not who the watchmaker is. No doubt he is long gone, just as I am. I am not worried about where the departed author has gotten off to.

I'm worried about what exactly he left behind.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Pierre Menard, Author of the Nintendo Project (Chip 'n Dale's Rescue Rangers and Chip 'n Dale's Rescue Rangers 2)


To complete the Nintendo Project, it is necessary to come to some full understanding of the past. This is more than memory. Memory is but a fleeting early stage of this process. To have written the Nintendo Project, it is necessary to have gone beyond mere memory into something approximating time travel. It is necessary, then, to build some sort of nexus - a common point of reference that can be visited and revisited along different chains of memories until, having been visited enough, it takes on a life of its own.

This process sounds very metaphysical and complex, but it is simpler than it sounds. Think of it as equivalent to doing the research to write a historical novel - becoming so steeped in the history of a time that you can speak it like a foreign language, phrase stories and experiences in it, etc.

This, then, is the first in a series of four entries. The others are a ways off - the next will be Darkwing Duck, in about 15 entries, then Ducktales about 23 after that. After that it's a long, long way to part four, TaleSpin.

These four games are all based on Disney cartoons that aired during a two hour afternoon block called Disney Afternoon. The four games in fact represent the lineup of that block in the 1991-92 television season, corresponding to when I was in fourth grade. The lineup changed annually, with the show in the first timeslot being removed, the others moved back half an hour, and a new show debuting in the last timeslot. The 1991-92 vintage was by far the best.

I was in fourth grade for this vintage. In the course of the year my mother became pregnant with my sister, and the Super Nintendo came out. This, then, is the tail end of the NES and the Nintendo Project. I will endeavor to inhabit it - in effect, to, inasmuch as it is possible, create a time machine and go back to that period of my life. To wit, these four entries - a concrete attempt within the Nintendo Project to work magic.

First is Chip 'n Dale's Rescue Rangers, and its sequel. Its sequel poses a problem that has become familiar for the Nintendo Project - it came out in 1993, in the fading days of the NES, at least for me. As a result, I didn't know it existed until now. Playing it with nothing but fond memories of the first game, it is a disappointment - a tepid sequel that does not expand meaningfully on the original. The first game, on the other hand, held a special place in my heart because it is a real rarity among NES games - it is both good and easy.

Or so memory indicated. I expected to sit down and blaze through the game. In practice, the game proved oddly difficult at first. Thankfully the good held through even if the easy didn't, and I spent more than my allotted half hour, and got good at the game again. But it was a learning process in a way that not all NES games are.

Replaying Chip 'n Dale's Rescue Rangers, I was struck by the degree to which the game is designed for children in a non-patronizing way. It is not that the game is made easy for children, but rather that the game requires particularly childlike logic to complete. Specifically, the game requires that you think as though you are too small for the world you live in.

Chip and Dale are both chipmunks. Small rodents. In the game, they are, by default, essentially helpless. They have no inherent attack, and no ability to fight off enemies. It is only when they are able to pick up boxes or other items that they have the capacity to fight back against their enemies.

The result is a gameplay that is based on the motion of small rodents - scampering from box to box, advancing nervously much of the time, hiding, ducking, etc. It is not a stealth game as such - its genre is clearly the standard platformer. But its a platformer that plays slightly out of rhythm with other platformers - that denies the ability to authoritatively control the game based on mere experience with the genre. Rather, it requires a different sort of experience - the experience of being small.

Playing the game now is not learning as such, but remembering - accessing parts of my brain that have long since been abandoned in favor of newer approaches. In part out of the hazy memories of the game that I retain, in part out of learned video game skill, and in part because of footholds the game actually gives me, I reconstruct something playable of the game.

This is not playing the game in 1991. But what would need to be different for me to do that? The issue here is one of awareness - to play the game in 1991, I need to forget 1992 and beyond. In other words, to experience 1991, I need to remove the intervening context and make 1991 imminent again. But to do so defeats the purpose - it is a 2010 me that wishes to experience 1991. To experience 1991 without awareness of 2010 fails to fulfill my desire.

(This is an intractable problem in the nature of humanity. It's the basic nature of memory. Trying to solve it is like declaring that rain is too wet and that you're going to do something about that.)

How do we resolve this then? Let's climb back down off this ledge and attack the problem from another angle. What is it that we wish to do when we remember? What does the choice to conjure the past entail? The answer is clearly not transformation of consciousness. When I wax nostalgic about Chip 'n Dale's Rescue Rangers, it is not because I want to be a 4th grader. I do not want to abandon sexual awakening, a PhD's worth of knowledge, love of Doctor Who, or my sister. So what do I desire from 1991 that is neither memory nor experience?

Is it simply a matter of stepping in the same river twice? Is what I desire not old experiences but the opportunity to have them as new experiences? Just as I wish I could watch Fight Club or The Prestige for the first time, not going back to get extra clues on a second viewing, but actually being surprised? No - if it were, Chip 'n Dale's Rescue Rangers 2 would be satisfying. After all, it's essentially new levels of the same game. But it's not - the problem is not merely that the experience ran out. It is deeper and stranger.

Perhaps I will know it when I find it. Let's simply reminisce. Fourth grade, academically, was not what I would call one of the good years. Actually, it's decisively the worst year of elementary school. The issue was a teacher who was, and you'll have to forgive my profound lack of humility here, completely unsuited to having a smart kid in her class. I will freely acknowledge that I was a handful in school - with the exception of first grade (a story I'll have to formulate eventually) I was the smartest kid in my class every year. And I was challengingly smart - I was not merely a good, diligent student. In fact, I was not a good, diligent student - work that bored me would be half-assed. I was smart, not studious, and that resulted in my challenging teachers, students, and everything else. Regularly.

Some teachers I had rose to the challenge, testing me back, trying to see if they could find my limits. Others treated me as an inconvenient barrier to what I imagine they saw as their real job, educating people who were not already smart. Mrs. Aschauer, my fourth grade teacher, was in the latter category, a problem that culminated in the absurd moment in which she suggested to me that many of my problems could be solved if only I'd stop being so smart. This was not advice I took kindly to.

Mrs. Aschauer died just under a year ago, of cancer. I'd visited her occasionally since graduating, but not really since my sister stopped going to elementary school, which must have been round about seven years ago now. Maybe I saw her once between then and her death. After the fact, when both of us were engaging that year only in memory, she seemed to think me one of her best students. I never gave her any reason to think otherwise, and now I never will. I feel more or less peace on this issue. Whatever I seek from the past, I do not seek it from her or her ghost

A wider net then. My first exposure to sex happened in fourth grade. Initially a product of bullying from some classmates in which they tried to get me to look it up in the dictionary, by the end of the year I had it explained to me in the context of my soon-to-exist sister. My reaction, when where babies came from was explained to me, was, and I quote, "So you just take all your clothes off and bodyslam each other?"

Perhaps most significantly, in fourth grade the Super Nintendo came out, and I got one. I'm not entirely sure where in the process of fourth grade this happened - I could reminisce with my parents, but they have a bad case of "being in England" right now, so no dice there. The Super Nintendo, in my childhood, is a strange signifier - although many of my all-time favorite games came out for it, in hindsight I remember it primarily as the terminus of the NES era. This is true even though in practice the two were hopelessly intertwined for years - it was an NES game I was playing when I learned my mother was pregnant, even though the SNES was out.

Friends. I must have been friends with Magnus by now, because I remember watching the premier of Darkwing Duck at his house. Magnus was a geek friend - when I got into Doctor Who, his mother was all too happy to vouch that she liked it to. She gave me old copies of the Doctor Who Roleplaying game, which I failed to adequately make sense of. In hindsight, I recognize his mother better now than I did then. At that age, other people's parents were strange semi-authority figures, not people. Now, she is familiar to me as a particular flavor of geek. I can imagine her seamlessly at any number of cons.

This is closer to what I am looking for.

My other good friend at the time was the child of old family friends. We'd lived near each other for a few years pre-Kindergarten in Massachusetts, but by now were about 90 minutes apart, though we visited frequently. He was a video game buddy if ever there was one. But our other big area of mutual interest was pretending we were spies. Chris and I had a lively enough imaginary life to begin with, but spies were, if you will, our true passion. Sneaking around, trying to find out information, hiding things, these were key games we played.

No wonder Chip ‘n Dale’s Rescue Rangers was my favorite show of the Disney block, then – and I watched with growing apprehension as it scrolled towards the inevitable removal spot. It is essentially a detective/spy show, with broad comedy, and, perhaps most crucially, Gadget, the single best reason to become a furry in all of animation. Gadget was in many ways the perfect character for me in this pre-sexual phase. The clear social expectation that I’d eventually have to date and find a wife (a process that, in 4th grade, I treated as an upcoming errand, not entirely dissimilar to emptying the dishwasher) was made easier by the knowledge that there were people in the world like Gadget – hyper-intelligent female mice – that I could marry.

In hindsight, there were certain problems with this plan, not the least of which the fact that it treated women as a sort of sacred object – of use because one must marry, and so one might as well find a tolerable person to marry. The failure of this ideology to distill out of many people is disturbing. But as a characteristic of pre-sexual cross-gender relations in a heteronormative society, there are worse problems to find. The sexless idolization of seemingly perfect womanhood is far from the greatest sin one finds if one scratches long enough at this dig site.

Why spies? Spying, as I understood it then, was the gathering of forbidden knowledge. The spy was the radical and dangerous embodiment of the idea that all knowledge is worth pursuing and obtaining. But more to the point, the spy also necessarily believes that everything is knowable. The spy, then, would reject the premise of my current dilemma, denying the very idea that there is some knowledge that precludes other knowledge.

I knew even in the fourth grade this couldn't be true. Why else would I be reluctant to look up sex in the dictionary. Because I knew there must be some meaning other than "male and female," and if they wanted me to look at that meaning, it must be a meaning I was not supposed to know. A meaning that it would be harmful for me to know. I did not spy. I declined to look it up, reasoning that the nagging to look it up was going to be preferable to whatever unknown hell would result in knowing.

There is a game that I have omitted here. In an attempt at clever obscurity, I’ll decline to state its name, although those with sufficient reserves of video game knowledge and sufficient mastery of the alphabet will see what game must go between Chessmaster and Chip ‘n Dale. It is an unlicensed game, and thus outside the necessary purview of this project. Its notability comes entirely from its violent content – the sheer and ludicrous sadism involved in it. It is not a good game, but a fascinating one – there is no way that anybody would ever want to play it. But all the same, its allure is there – a secret ritual (I did not partake of it until college) that calls to us. Why? I posit this – we desire forbidden knowledge so that we can know why it was forbidden. The sole content of the Tree of Life is the knowledge of why God forbid us to eat its fruit.

This desire echoes up from creation to the present. It is the desire to remember - the desire to have it both ways. The desire to see the forbidden knowledge that laid scattered around without affecting the experience. It is the desire to spy in complete safety, in a country where nobody will arrest you or imprison you for seeking answers.

Even still, the past rebuffs us. Revisiting 1991 via Chip 'n Dale's Rescue Rangers, there is a new forbidden knowledge - that which I understood then and cannot see now. I can perhaps translate - learn to play the game again, even beat it again. But it will never again be an easy game.

This line of enquiry has dried up. We ought fall back, and seek another path through this morass.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I'm No Pawn, I'm Donald Duck! (Championship Pool and Chessmaster)


If one were to make a chart of human activities based on degree of oversignification, one would first of all be ridiculously OCD, and would second of all find, high at the oversignified end of the scale, chess, and more or less on the opposite side, pool.

The heart of Chess's bizarre melange of signification is its status as the symbol of human intelligence. It is an odd status for it to have. As games go, chess is relatively young, evolving a mere 600 years ago, with its current set of rules not emerging until the 16th century (and arguably later the further into arcana one goes). Its ancestor games run back further to India. But on the other side of the world, in steady contemplation, Go reaches at least to the 6th century BCE, and in legend stretches back a full four thousand years. As an intellectual pursuit, let's be blunt, chess effectively ended in 1997 when it became clear that computer players were capable of beating even the best human players.

This apocalyptic moment has not affected other games, including Go. Furthermore, there are obscure games such as Arimaa, a recent game designed with the express purpose of taking a chess board and designing a simple game that computers would suck at. But these are mere facts that litter the metaphorical landscape of the world. In ideaspace, there's no avoiding the blunt truth - chess towers as a metaphorical brick on our landscape, standing in as the ultimate form of intellectualism.

Even Alan Moore, usually cleverer than this, writing four years after Deep Blue toppled Kasparov (and mere months before 9/11) identifies chess as part of the fundamental infrastructure of Hod, the intellectual realm, building off of the 8x8 Magic Square (Hod's numerological signifier being the number 8). It's a dead end Moore should have known better than.

Countless apocalypses have passed since 1997, and from the clear light of the present it is uncanny to stare back at 1989 and the NES's Chessmaster. Here a computer playing chess was a safe thing. The game box confirms it, showing an old wizard-like man, apparently the eponymous Chessmaster. Here chess is allied to wisdom and thus to magic, albeit subtly. Compare to the present edition of the game. On its cover, three glass chess pieces stand, their curves deforming the chessboard behind them. My how things change in 20 years.

As an experience there is little to say about playing chess on the NES. Unlike Battlechess, the game does not feature extensive pantomime theatrics to slow things down. This is a pure sort of chess. The experience translates reasonably well. In an era before the personal computer was wholly ubiquitous, this sort of thing made sense.

The defeat of Kasparov at the circuits of Deep Blue is fascinating in two regards. First are Kasparov's sour grapes - he accused the computer of having beautiful gameplay in spots, suggesting that this could only be the product of a human - which is a beautiful moment of clinging to delusion. Second, this moment amounts to the culmination of a technologically deterministic dystopian fantasy. Going back to Star Trek, with Kirk and Spock playing 3-D chess, chess had a status as the limit point that determined that humans were superior to machines. But in practice, the claim that Kirk could beat Spock by playing illogically is transparently false.

Which, actually, we really always knew. Chess is a solvable game - by which I mean that, because of a fixed initial position and a lack of randomness, there is an optimal strategy. From the first move, both white and black have an optimal set of moves. If both players play correctly, either white can necessarily win, black can necessarily win, or, more likely, the two sides can force a draw. The issue is that the decision tree is complex enough that it hasn't been computed yet. Checkers, on the other hand, has been computed - and indeed, checkers is a game where either player can force a draw.

This is true of Go and Arimaa as well, of course. It makes little sense to be surprised or alarmed that humanity can be outdone by brute force reason in a deterministic game. So why did chess, over all the other deterministic games, acquire its oversignified fetish status as the peak of intellectual pursuit?

Borges, the great Lovecraftian (this is true - his short story "There Are More Things" is dedicated to Lovecraft, and it is no great leap to see the Lovecraftian influences on Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius) wrote a poem, Chess, in which he notes: "It was in the East this war took fire. Today the whole earth is its theater. Like the game of love, this game goes on forever."

Like Moore, Borges is not a stupid man. Unlike Moore, he gets it right. He notes that the pieces, which he carefully personifies, are guided by what is, for them, an unseen hand. "They do not know an adamantine fate controlls their will and lays the battle plan." Borges continues. "God moves the player, he in turn the piece. But what god beyond God begins the round of dust and time and sleep and agonies?"

Chess, then, belongs not to the realm of logic but of story and metaphor. Its metaphor is war, of course - combat and battle. War is not deterministic - far from it. It is thus not something that man can ever lose dominion of completely. Except through that perverse weapon of metaphor, where the vicissitudes and chaos of war can be fixed, determined, and we can be beaten. Like most apocalypses, Deep Blue is a metaphoric one.

(When I was very young - five or so - I asked for a chess set for Christmas. My mother's friends implored her not to get me one, saying they were pushing me too hard. They were unaware of what my mother knew well - all I wanted to do was play war games with the board.)

Pool, then. A different game, to say the least. Non-deterministic, and based on a strange mixture of mind and body, it is much stranger to imagine the idea of computer domination here, requiring a combination of geometry (which a computer is likely good at) and precise physical action (which one is not - even allowing for robotics).

Perhaps because it models nothing, Pool is a metaphor for little. Indeed, pool halls and the social interactions within signify far more than mere colored balls. I am aware of but one major exception - the cartoon Donald in Mathmagic Land, which contains a lengthy section in which Donald is taught to play three-cushion billiards via the simple mathematics of the diamond system. I mention this because it has one of the most uncanny moments of any Disney cartoon I am aware of - as Donald is initiated into the secret society of the Pythagoreans via an extended meditation on the pentagram, which thus features what I am fairly sure is the longest occult sequence in any Disney cartoon. The end point is that pool, as with most things in life, can be modeled mathematically. Through mathematics, the mind can contemplate infinity.

But again, metaphor can be our undoing. Consider Championship Pool, a game where one plays pool against the NES. Except one is not playing pool - metaphor has snuck in on us, and converted our physicality to mere helpless binaries. Once again the game is deterministic, and in the most sadistic sense - we are allowed to win only if the system lets us. Donald in Mathmagic Land ends with the famed Galileo quote that mathematics is the language in which God wrote the universe. But this quote is short-sighted. Once again, the Lovecraftian/Borgesian axis rears its head. For if mathematics is the language in which God wrote, what is the language in which God is written? Whatever god behind God exists, this is certain - he too controls with symbol.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Best Defense is Probably a Cup of Tea and a Kitty (Caveman Games, Championship Bowling)


In video games, as with any nerdy pursuit, one is eventually forced to confront the odious reek of masculinity. Rising like the mix of stale beer and Old Spice off of a frathouse, it stains the discourse - that kind of unmentionable and unfathomable stain that, when it appears on a sofa, means that you just chuck it and think no more of it. Even in the most marginalized frontiers of geek culture, this stench exists, without question the same awful fumes that exist in the frathouse.

By masculinity I specifically mean the aggressive components of male-associated western culture. It is an enormously broad ideology that has seeped deep into the carpet of our collective unconscious. Its primary features, however, all come down to a teleology based entirely on the exertion of force out of no motivation save for the exertion of that force. From beer cans crushed on the head to date rape, from NASCAR to Matthew Shepherd, its manifestations are more or less the only diverse thing about it.

Caveman Games exemplifies this attitude in a way I cannot entirely make heads or tails of. It is a humorous game - this much is clear. But its humor is toothless. No. Not even toothless. That would imply that it is fruitlessly gumming upon its target. Caveman Games lacks even a target, simply yucking into the void. Ostensibly it could be taken as a mockery of athletics - the sports twisted into Caveman forms being revealed as exercises in savage brutality. But if that is our interpretation, the issue is not even toothlessness. The joke, after all, is not some destabilizing revelation of the morally bankrupt core of sporting events. If anything, the joke is that these Caveman versions of sporting events obtain a purity that the modern equivalents lack.

When one of the events is Mate Tossing, the hammer throw with women instead of hammers, the unseemly nature of this joke is laid bare. Sure, there is a female character, Crudla. But the joke there is her utter lack of femininity - the fact that she is just a reskinned male. Indeed, in mate tossing, she throws a woman just like the boys. (Even if we do take this as anything other than programmer laziness, it comes down to a crass "lesbians are men" joke.)

I should pause here and note that I am differentiating masculinity from other aspects of maleness. I am male, and at least marginally comfortable with this fact. And many of the traditional views of male energy are ones I am comfortable with, if not entirely comfortable with its association with the phallus. I am not offering this as a critique of men, nor even of male privilege (although I am in no way fond of that.)

No - masculinity is not mere privilege, though that is its most upsettingly common manifestation. What is maddening about privilege is its lack of self-awareness. If you find yourself thinking a lot about white privilege, you're probably either an academic or not white. But while privilege is exercised with blithe indifference, masculinity, distinct even from other forms of sexual privilege, is exercised with active antipathy to the very notion of its own self-awareness.

For my part, masculinity forms an irritating part of my psychic landscape. It is difficult, perhaps impossible to fully reject masculinity as a male. Alternative modes of discourse can be embraced, but a signifier cannot be fully decoupled from its signified. Sex signifies gender, and when that gender is male, masculinity is signified. That bell cannot be unrung. You can embrace alternatives, but all you can hope to do with the essential signifier is negate it - embrace non-masculinity. The problem is, all this gets you is three extra points in Scrabble, and even that won't survive a challenge.

With other ideologies this negation, though not a cure-all, at least progresses measurably towards improvement. Some ideologies you can make an entire intellectual or artistic career by tacking a "post" or "neo" at the head of them. Try that trick with masculinity and it will spill its beer on you, then pass out while humping your leg. This is because the central move of masculinity is blithe rejection of any broader order. This rejection goes well beyond the bounds of mere anarchism into a sort of wholesale rejection of the concept of signification and meaning. In its final form, it is as near to nihilism as any ideology that is actually held, ultimately finding value only in the exertion of its own will to power.

Ironically, the single most masculine figure in contemporary American culture is a woman, namely Sarah Palin. This is in part because of her success in rocketing to the head of a particular conservative movement that is based on masculinity. The modern conservative movement's dependence on the strategy of simply baldly lying whenever it is more convenient than the alternative is quintessentially masculine. When these tactics are tied to gay panic and capitalism - both natural allies in masculinity - the result is terrifying. Sarah Palin's genius is to hide these factors in an ostensibly feminine, indeed an ostensibly feminist packaging.

(An interesting analogue - there was a small movement among women's studies professors in the 80s that claimed that it was inaccurate to think of Margaret Thatcher as a woman.)

Bowling, as in Championship Bowling, has no essential reason to be masculine. And yet it is. Case in point, the bizarre fascination with Obama's poor bowling performance in the Democratic primary season. The reason this story took root was that it tied directly into the question of whether Hillary Clinton was more masculine than Obama, and thus better suited to the mechanisms of power. (The end result, born I suspect from a combination of Clinton's bizarrely self-negating inept embrace of masculinity and a momentary outbreak of sanity following the disastrous masculinity of Bush, was an active decision to pick the less masculine option, a decision Obama has run from consistently since then)

The end result is a bland game featuring essentially no content. A blank slate of a bowling simulation that says and does nothing. Its sole role is as a casual game, a simulacrum of actual activity and content. It is not a game that it is easy to imagine anyone playing, though this is true of many NES games. More than anything, it is a return to the recurrent theme of video games as a bland, narcotic background hum of popular culture.

This hum serves masculinity well. Essential to masculinity is the complete rejection of the idea of the Other's interiority. Masculinity focuses entirely on the individualized exertion of power. The world, in this case, amounts to nothing more than objects upon which power can be exerted. The fundamental flaw in this ideology is most clear when applied to capitalism. Certainly the maniacal excesses of corporate America are a logical endpoint of capitalism and its ethos that a corporation's sole responsibility is to deliver maximal profit to shareholders. But these excesses necessitate a vast class of have-nots. Wealth is a finite commodity. To exert power through aggregation of it, it is necessarily the case that you take away from some other person's wealth. This is subjugation, and the narcotic hum of depressive gaming serves it well.

Then what of my own place in this madness? I have no love of masculinity. Indeed, as my tone likely shows, I mostly despise it. And yet empiricism indicates otherwise. I've made some kind of peace with the capitalist system. And I'm perfectly willing to wade into the unnerving depths of geekdom. I consume superhero comics, fetishization of violence and all. The better angels of my nature are drowned out by the din of masculinity's endless ascent.

You could be subverting the patriarchy. You could be tearing down the walls of consensus reality. You could be making the world a stranger place, and in doing so making it hostile to masculinity.

You are reading a blog.

I could be doing these things.

I am writing a blog.

Why do we shy away from the salvation of aesthetic extremism?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How to Read and Write the Nintendo Project (Castlevania, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse)


Whether you are reading or writing the Nintendo Project, it is important to understand that every entry progresses along a certain logic. Just as logical proofs advance via deductive logic, just as Marxist histories advance via dialectical logic, the Nintendo Project advances via what I would describe as mystical or even magical logic.

This logic progresses primarily on a system of themes and variations. At the onset of the entry, some theme is laid out. In terms of writing the entry, this theme should be a common link between or among the games being played. Sometimes the alphabet does that for you, as with today, in which all three of the games are in the same series. Other times you get lucky - three games that all feature rabbits as the main characters. Other times you get unlucky, and have to manage something where you connect the idea of a cabal to the idea of gambling and luck, and then figure you'll make the third game work somewhere down the line. It's a subtle art. Regardless, it is this that is the biggest inadvertent innovation of the Nintendo Project - by forcing entries to be about what are functionally random collections of games, I am forced into themes that are non-obvious.

From there come the variations. The more you can frame these variations in the gameplay the better, but if we're being honest, you can riff on whatever you need to here. For instance, if our common theme is the Castlevania series, we might note that an interesting characteristic of Castlevania games is that the layout of Castlevania itself remains relatively static. The same rooms, staircases, bosses, and at times secrets persist with minor variations that constitute a new game. Thus the games are always a strange fusion of sequel and remake.

Here is where the key trick of mystical logic comes. The key trick is this: Any part of a variation may be substituted for the theme as needed. Or, put another way, all subsequent variations are now not variations of the original theme, but variations of the variation.

To wit, now that we have the idea of variation on a theme and Castlevania, any subsequent variation of the theme of Castlevania can also incorporate variation of the theme. From this we can build some other edifice - the narrative logic of variations of a theme, and continue from there.

Often, though not always, it is prudent to treat the games and their common link as a variation, and to backform themes that could lead up to this variation. For instance, although this entry is about Castlevania, I have actually built to Castlevania from the theme of how the Nintendo Project itself works. I could have started with Castlevania and then noted that the idea of theme and variation is central to the Nintendo Project, it is true. But often it is easier to start with some declaration of theme - mystical logic - in the first paragraph, and to build up from it to where you have the core elements of the entry, even if that means that the games take a bit of time to show their heads.

This delaying tactic is useful because it provides the reader with islands of sanity in what rapidly becomes a very complex cascade of images and concepts. This is the nature of mystical logic - as variations upon variations occur, paragraphs become increasingly pregnant with litanies of images, subtle variations on previous images, juxtapositions, and other rhetorical tropes. Furthermore, because the mechanism of the Nintendo Project is manifestly not the mere elucidation of a concept but the development of it, links among concepts may be called upon without explicit reference to their antecedents or explanation of the connection. These severed concepts serve to expand the revisitation of the past so that it is not mere simulacrum of past statement, but a new statement entirely masked in the previous - concepts that, in other contexts, have given rise to words like "reboot" and "re-imagining" to describe the relationship of variation to theme.

Because the games are among the most concrete aspects of the Nintendo Project, their deployment serves to provide moments of still in the cacaphony that allow the reader to get some sense of bearing. By returning to a moment of relative simplicity, the reader is able to breathe, get a foothold, and make sense of things.

The easiest way to use the games in this manner is to take a break and spend a few sentences describing the game. This allows some of your initial themes to play out in relative peace, helping build scaffolding that will let the reader get higher up with you. Castlevania, the original game in the series, provides a function along these lines. It has a mere six levels. But these levels contain key elements that every subsequent Castlevania game will use - musical cues, enemies, bosses, items, etc. On its own merits, Castlevania is merely a very good side-scroller. Taken in the context of a still-developed franchise, though, it is the essential building blocks of the entire franchise. It is impossible, in 2010, to play it as the stand-alone game it was released as. Instead, little things - the classic set of weapons (dagger, axe, holy water, cross, stopwatch), the infamous opening hallway, the screaming notes of the theme later named as Vampire Killer - stand not as elements of this game but of future games.

Mystical logic disrupts causality, enabling productive non-sequitur. These non-sequiturs eventually have to wander back to the spine of themes and variations, but can initially serve as off-putting jumps that disorient the reader. In this regard they are inversions of the trope of moving to the games. Where the games comfort, the non-sequitur confuses. But it is an absolutely crucial move for the Nintendo Project. The Nintendo Project is, at its heart, a project about understanding the present through the past. But because the past is appropriated by this project, it is altered.

When I play Castlevania II, the first Castlevania game I played, and something of an instant classic, I am not playing the same thing my 5 or 6-year-old self played. I am instead playing a memory. What I find in 1988 is not the content of 1988 as experienced, but the content of 1988 as a memory of 2010. This is where the idea of secret histories came from - the 1988 that could not occur in 1988. The non-sequitur animates this notion. By using non-sequitur logic, I can treat this secret 1988 as an existent history that affects the present. Which, unmistakably, it is, because the 1988 I remember from 2010 informs 2010 just as much as 2010 informs my capacity to remember.

The Castlevania II I experienced in 1988 occurred out of a combination of boredom and my mother's kindness. Unable to find a Nintendo game I wanted to play, I asked her for a new one. I believe I specified something Zelda like. She was also bored, and produced Castlevania II from the so-called Rainy Day Closet of surprises. The game was maddening, but good - a vast explorable world that required trial and error to make sense of. Its context was shady - a product of playing Part II with no awareness of Part I, but the plot made sense - Dracula cursed the good guy, and the good guy has to reassemble Dracula's body parts to remove the curse.

Today, a mixture of oddities (the bizarre lamentation "What a terrible night for a curse" never fails to elicit a grin from me) and poor gaming decisions (at one point, with minimal cluing, you have to kneel in front of a dead end holding a random object to uncover the way through something) makes Castlevania II less than satisfying. But there is still something alluring to its gameplay. This is odd in some ways - usually trial-and-error gameplay is just irritating. But that is because the errors amount to traps - ledges that unexpectedly fall out from under you, enemies that attack from nowhere, etc. Here the trials and errors are a matter of learning a much broader system - an entire map and world. There is an appeal to this - to clumsily staking out parts of a vast world in pursuit of understanding.

On the one hand, Castlevania II is the odd duck of the family, making its status as introduction for me a bit odd. It does not feature many - indeed most of the iconic features of Castlevania games. On the other, it serves as foreshadowing. Long after the window of this project, exploration would become the norm for Castlevania, ushered in by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Thus like the first Castlevania, buried in the past is the form of the future. The theme, once varied, itself encodes all the variations.

Psychogeography, as epitomized by Iain Sinclair, is a process of combining lived experience and objective history to produce a narrative of a place. Walking tours flecked with history, collapsing time into a single point. I borrow the ideas of this, but remap them to psychochronography. Instead of working through a place, I work through a time - a discrete chunk of childhood, a discrete chunk of history, and build out an edifice that captures the whole of it. Once the chain of variations linked me and the NES, this became a quest for fundamental understanding. If the full chronography of this temporal space can be unwound and mapped out, the result will be mystical knowledge and experience.

Here we run into an idea from games such as Castlevania II - one not included in it, but included in its heirs (including Symphony of the Night). Completion percentage. In a large, mappable game, the question becomes "how much of the game have you seen?" How many secrets have you found? In most games of this sort, the amount of play needed to beat the game falls well short of the amount of play needed to see everything. Raising completion percentage to 100% is then a quest for the hardcore player.

Themes and variations rapidly become vast edifices of concepts and words. In the later paragraphs of the Nintendo Project, entries begin to smash large piles of concepts together with chaotic glee. The resulting paragraphs are daunting, full of allusions to variations that are not even sketched out. These shards of meaning, bound up in the logic of cut-ups and sigils, contain within them entire paragraphs, at times spinning out from a single word. Lengthy lists pile these words up together, bringing in the work of Crowley, Burroughs, P-Orridge, Spare, Ulmer, and more. Tarot symbolism, cut-up methods, gender performance, sigils, chorography, stacking up, referencing each other, marking each other, writing each other in a massive collision of ideas, variations crashing into dissonance, performing the endless serpent dance of signal and noise, thing and void. This is the gambler's existential dilemma, the archeologist's dig, the secret history, the voice of the cabal, the fibonacci spiral, the heart of the matter - a nexus of meaning that if only it could be unfolded and understood would capture the thing itself.

These paragraphs are not intended to be understood as such. These are the dizzying heights of mysticism, intended only for the 100% completist player. Most players don't do this. In fact, a word of warning: Sentences in the Nintendo Project are not intended to be read and understood fully. Attempting to do so may be hazardous to your health.

The resulting crescendo is not where the Nintendo Project ends. This is why, truth be told, I suggest that magical logic is a more accurate description of what I do than mystical logic. Mysticism is the plunge into the formless chaos. Magic is the return to earth. I am not a mystic, but a magician. The Nintendo Project ends back in the world.

One final image. Another intrusion of a landmass. Imagine the themes and variations stacking up together as sound - at first harmonious, but then increasingly discordant as the din accrues. Eventually it is no longer music but a shrieking, maddening noise.

This final image is silence. Peel all of the variations away, and return to something like the original theme. But the original theme is inaccessible. Just like Castlevania is not accessible after Castlevania II and III, the song has changed in our absence.

End, then, not with a statement of theme, but with a modernist twist. Embed the idea in things. Just as the theme originally sprung out of the material object of the games, the entry ends with a material scene - an image.

Sitting down to play Castlevania III after the progression of history is known, the game is dizzying. Its myriad of debts to what came before are unmistakable, as are its long legacy, wrapping through a mass of future games. Beyond that, there is the realization that this is the technological peak of the NES. More advanced games would eventually get released, but Castlevania III notably came out just before the arrival of the Super Nintendo. The differences between it and its Super Nintendo sequel, Castlevania IV, are relatively slim, and mostly come down to the ways Castlevania IV shows off its tech. Indeed, Castlevania III is notable in part for being a game with so many clever graphical tricks that most NES emulators have to be specifically coded to handle the odd exceptions and limit cases it produces.

Accompanied by this mass of context and trivia is a clear fact about Castlevania III: it's a great game. At times viciously hard, at times thrilling, and always engaging. It's one of the core of NES games that picks up and plays well, as a game, 20 years or more after it came out. Playing it, it's clear that even if you walked into it without knowing the context, you'd have a good time. But knowing the context, that experience is augmented by other experiences, variations on its theme, stretching out vastly and wonderfully. The game is dizzying. Looking at it, one gets a sense - that if one could write about Nintendo Games in just the right way, capturing this mass of intertwined technological, social, and personal developments that extend naturally from even a single game, one could produce something with strange and wonderful insight about a cultural phenomenon, and about one's self. Say, if this logic were applied universally, to all Nintendo games... if one were to just start playing through them and writing about these links and connections... what would happen?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Here, Where the Daylight Begins (Castelian, Castle of Dragon, Castlequest)


Autumn, my preferred season, has a charming tendency to arrive with minimal fanfare, switching with reckless aplomb from "turn the air on" to "holy fuck where the hell are my sweaters" in, if it's taking a slow way around, a day or so. Which is where today went. Autumn is inexorably bound to New England for me, although it's been seven years since I've gotten to properly experience it. Though here I am.

In the past I've gotten my fill of autumn, when possible, by dashing back for a few days for my sister's birthday. Now I'm calmly waiting for my birthday, and, a few days later, all in less than a week, my sister going away to college. In England. So I don't much see what else to write about but that. And her. And castles. Which fits in well with England.

Castelian, technically starting with castel instead of castle, is the odd duck out, or in this case, the odd pig out, as the game consists of walking a strange pig creature around surprisingly well-rendered 3-D towers. I played an earlier version on the Commodore 64. It's a remarkably innovative game, but sinks limply into awkward controls and non-intuitive puzzle-solving necessitating repeated trial-and-error playing.

This is one of those points where reality and gaming diverge sharply. Reality is intensely trial-and-error. Relationships and family? Trial-and-error. And let's face it, there's a lot of error. Even in a relationship as essentially unfraught with tension as mine with my sister. Look, let's not mince words, we get along spectacularly. Famously. Dynamic duo of snark. She looks up to me. I stare in baffled marvel at how someone who is so self-evidently cooler than me in every regard would ever look up to me.

It's not that we don't fight, butt heads, and generally piss each other off. We do. Like any sibling relationship. No, it's this. If you or anyone else ever hurts my sister, I will rip your intestines out, fashion a noose from them, and hang you from them while repeatedly punching you in your now-exposed kidneys. And crucially, she'd do the same if you hurt me. Only because she's cooler than me, she'd do it better.

It's important to stop and recognize these things. The Nintendo Project, by quirk of chronology, is largely my childhood before Tori. This is an almost unfathomable concept to me - the idea that I walked around for ten years without her to tag along. Or longer, really, because, let's face it, even someone as cool as Tori isn't that cool before she's toilet trained. She was born in 1992, just about a year after the SNES came out.

I don't know if I want this. I don't know that it is good to exist without her. I don't know that I want a history sans Tori. Such a thing is not worth excavating.

So let's take a new approach. A new sort of secret history. Instead of disinterring lost knowledge of myself, let's sneak off to the scene of the crime and bury some new evidence. Punch a cheat code in on history. The secret history of my NES days, co-starring the Fantastic Tori, regardless of her existence.

We've always shared England. It's a family trait. We are hopeless anglophiles. It was part of her earliest geek training - Doctor Who. I had her knowing that a Dalek says "Exterminate" before she could read. Useful knowledge for life, that. (An interesting thing has just happened - along with her, Doctor Who has crossed the barriers of chronology, embedded itself in a past it couldn't occupy. This will pay dividends somewhere. Just you watch.) And we share more. English soccer. A love of the accent. Across the board, we share this. Castles are a part of this.

In reality, a castle is a defensive fortification, distinct from a palace. Castles are not the seats of governmental power, but of military power. Which is why damn near every town in England has at least one. So in London proper, you've got relatively few castles. Most of the good stuff - Kensington, Buckingham, Hampton Court - are palaces. The Tower of London is technically a castle, but you never call it that. The lone major castle is Windsor Castle. All the same, the mythos is familiar. But not mere mythos to us. Castles are not some exotic phenomenon for us. They're what you see in England, where we like to go. It's what we do.

On the other hand, when you are confronted with something like Castle of Dragon, a rightfully obscure NES game? My sister and I fire on all cylinders, fully recognizing this as, simply put, the absolute best title that anything has ever had.

Here we diverge - my sister is less the fiend for precise and crunchy details than I am. I'll take this section solo, then. A side-scroller in which you infiltrate a castle and kill the threats within, Castle of Dragon has two major problems. First, it is clunky, and this renders it difficult. Second, you have one life. Seriously. You die, you start over. This is very possibly the most unreasonable difficulty setting I have ever found on any game. It's brutal.

What would my sister do with Castle of Dragon? I don't know. But she'd rock it. That's how it works. She's possessed with a ruthless pragmatism that borders on ontological force. Put her in a situation, and she makes it happen. I remember her striding boldly into the bar at Dragon*Con with me, because we saw Felicia Day there. She wingmanned me as we sat down on the sofas near her and chatted amicably with her. Except she did the talking. I did the... actually, basically I just went out for gin and saw Felicia Day. It didn't require masses of talent. Still, that's our dynamic. She does awesome stuff, and I'm lucky enough to tag along.

Video games occupy a strange space between us. I am better at them than she is. I think she'd even admit this without too much grudge. I love playing them with her, as a result, because it's about the only sphere in which I can outdo her in any sort of a material way. I cling to them in part because I've gotta have something.

I think that she believes me smarter than her. It's a lie. I just have a decade more practice. But I'll allow the lie. But seriously, consider the evidence. I slogged off to rural Ohio at a small liberal arts college. It was a good school for me, and I made success, but there was no glamor to it. Her? She's off to the University of Manchester in England to study Japanese language and culture. So yeah, she's fusing our love of England with Japan, where the video games come from. Not to knock my alma mater, but dude, she's got me smoked here.

I look up to her more than she could possibly realize. But here, perhaps, is my moment of greatest admiration and greatest pride. I see my fingerprints all over this. 18 years of being the cool older brother (God she's a poor fool) has caused me to pass on a scattered melange of interests. England and Japan. Yeah. This is all my fault. It's unmistakably her path, not mine. But she's entwined herself around the same rod I have. We're two strands of one caduceus, she and I. Snakes on an endless upward climb towards enlightenment, or wisdom, or maybe just a high score. Doesn't matter. "Why are you twining your ways up that staff towards infinity?" "Cause it's there."

And here, then, in our last game, it comes together. Castlequest. Speckled with Japanese oddities and a European sheen of narrative, an action puzzle game. She's never played it. I've never played it. It came out in 1989. She was -3. I was still living in New Milford, a town she's never lived in. It's an OK game. A strange game mechanic, in that you start with 50 lives. Awkward, in ways, but based on a reasonably fun exploration, get keys, evade enemies mechanic. I could have killed an afternoon or two this way. I reckon she could have too.

This is what defines friendship and love, I imagine. We are not mere blood, she and I. Here, at the deepest point of this archeology, right where I was meant to lay the evidence, she's there, grinning mischievously, shock of pink hair glinting in the memories. Friendship is what happens when your pasts are intertwined even at the points they don't touch. When a game that's part of neither of your lives, that could never be part of one of your lives, is still full of points of commonality.

There's no me without her, nor her without me. Ten years of fucking around on the Nintendo waiting for her to show up, and another few of waiting for her to be cool? Just me biding time and setting things up for her. I didn't need to know this for it to be true. I rarely need to know what I'm doing with her. Just follow the bright pink hair, and it's all gonna rock.

Off to England with you, slimeface. I'll be over here playing my video games and writing my weird little blog. Plow on forward, and we'll catch up again on the other side of the caduceus, ascending with savage mirth towards the top. Why? Cause we're just awesome like that.

But one thing. While you're in England? Watch out for Daleks. You'll know them by the sound of their exterminations.