Friday, January 28, 2011

Become a Whipporwill (Dragon Warrior, Dragon Warrior II, Dragon Warrior III, Dragon Warrior IV)

So there's a woman. She wants to find Princess Gwaelin. And she spends her days standing near the fountain in the king's courtyard, pacing around. And if you talk to her, all she will do is ask where she can find Princess Gawelin. She never leaves. She never sleeps. 

What can be said about this woman? 

Very little. She is a phantom, in many ways. An illusion of a life. Not even a convincing illusion - no player of Dragon Warrior reasonably ponders her nature or her future. There is no way to appease her, or satisfy her - the game ends with Princess Gwaelin's location anyway. She is not even a person, but an expression of anguish, the establishment that this missing princess thing is kind of a big deal, that has been given a generic sprite and used as decoration in the same way that some people use peace lilies. 

A reader wrote-in to praise the blog, but also to note that he disagreed with me about Japanese RPGs. 
You were spot on when you said that live role-playing like D&D offers people a chance to share deep interactions without the emotions involved ever spilling over into real life.  It sounds like as a teenager you were able to find a group of like-minded people with whom you could enjoy an activity like this.  I never did.  For me, human interaction was defined by keeping as low a profile as possible in order to avoid the constant threat of humiliation.  Until about my senior year of high school, other people my age were pretty much the last people I ever wanted to deal with, so what attracted me to RPGs was that the characters weren’t real.  Characters in video games never called me a faggot and threw pencils at me. They never stole my diary and read it aloud in class.  They never told me they loved me and then sucked my best friend’s dick in the back of a Volvo.
I was moved, especially because I was working on playing the games for this entry anyway, so it was of immediate relevance to my thought. I went back to Dragon Warrior III, and tried to view the characters through the light of their unreality. And the problem I had was this - the characters never told me they loved me or sucked my best friend's dick in the back of a Volvo. And really, I couldn't know that last one for certain. Because the characters in Dragon Warrior not only aren't real people, they're not even unreal people. They're not people at all.

None of which makes me sympathize less with or doubt my reader's e-mail. I take at face value that Japanese RPGs offered genuine comfort growing up. But I can't quite escape being troubled by the nature of this escape.

Dragon Warrior was in many ways the first JRPG, predating Final Fantasy by a year. In 1986, when the game was released, the NES was in its infancy - well-established by then in Japan, but still in its early days. Dragon Warrior predates Mega Man, Castlevania, Metroid, Super Mario: Lost Levels, and Adventure Island all. In the US, the system had only been widely available for three months when the game came out in Japan.

In other words, there is no genre that this game fit into. Dragon Warrior is an act of creation. The starting point of a new genre.

The thing about the Dragon Warrior games, and JRPGs in general, is that they try very actively to defy what I consider to be pretty steadfast rule about video games, and really fiction in general - there is no such thing as a fictional world.

I base this not on cynicism, or on anything less than a completely reverential respect for the transformative power of art, but on the sense that the idea of fictional worlds is a cop-out - a cheap move that devalues art. It is not that I object to the idea that art creates new things, but rather that I object to sequestering those things off behind a veil, declaring that the membrane between the world of forms and the world of representation is impermeable.

But the JRPG defies that. Not only do they set up something with a striking formal resemblance to a world - lots of video games do that - but then they try to put an elaborate plot in it with double-crossing and betrayal and rising/falling action. At their current endpoint, with things like Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy XIII, and other such bits of epicness, the case can almost be made that these demonstrate video games as a fully functional narrative medium with interactive virtual worlds.


But this is not a blog about the present except inasmuch as it is held hostage by the past. And in 1986, Dragon Warrior did not have an elaborate plot. Its plot was as minimalist as Zelda, released three months earlier. And unlike Zelda, battles in Dragon Warrior were bloody tedious, with a truly epic early slog hacking apart red slimes being necessary to have a snowball's chance in hell at survival.

What distinguishes it, then, from the American style of CRPG exemplified by Ultima and Wizardry? One thing. You don't create your character. Which sounds like a negative, except for two things. First, character creation is a profoundly non-intuitive process. Optimizing character creation so that you can do well in the game requires understanding the game's systems to know, for instance, whether a boost to DEX or STR (and it's up to you to know what those abbreviations mean) are going to optimize your damage-per-round, and which one is most easily dealt with through use of magical items and leveling later. When you first boot up a game, you are unlikely to know these things, making character creation a kind of intensely futile process.

(This is why, for fans of tabletop role-playing games, there is something almost sacred about character creation. I have a friend who we joke cannot make a character unless he actually rips out a small part of his soul to imbue the character with life, so intensely dedicated is his character creation. I am less fond of the process, but strangely drawn to games like the original Traveller, where, memorably, you can die during character creation, which seems to me to be such a perfect example of the inherent madness of RPGs.)

But in Dragon Warrior, you hit start and are given a character. You can name him. That's about it. Past that, you are expected to slot into a role the game has mapped out for you. But what's interesting is that this is less of a virtual world than the American style. In those games, you can usually make a character of your choosing and expect the world to respond to you. Here, you are given the opportunity to play out the role of one character. There may be a few limited branching points, but by and large, your role is part of a larger system with all the motions pre-ordained. Your task is to live up to your role.

This is explicit in the Dragon Warrior series, where your role is defined by your being a descendent of Erdrick. This is why you have responsibilities, and why you must fight the Dragonlord. Thus instead of being put into a world and allowed to interact with it, you are given a responsibility. The video game is a duty.

(There is an interesting analysis to be made of CRPGs in general as Marxist parables - the so-called grind of leveling reduces combat to a sort of industry, with low-level monsters existing only as commodities to be tediously slaughtered by those at the low end of the corporate ladder. The adventurer is alienated from the looting of his slaughter.)

This sense of duty in video games is normal - in fact, most games do not give you much say in who the protagonist is. But it is unusual in a role-playing game that one should actually have a prescribed role. And the constraints levied by the role only increase from game to game. Dragon Warrior II has a much more involved plot that is affected in part by events of the first game, thus intensifying the sense that one's role has a pre-ordained course. In Dragon Warrior III, this heightens even more as the player is cast as Erdrick himself, and in Dragon Warrior IV, one spends the first four chapters of the game playing supporting characters trying to get to the main Hero of chapter five, meaning that by the time you get your main character he's the fulfillment of the plot as opposed to the primary instigator of it.

(Complexity of plot is actually much of what distinguishes the four games, which are otherwise pretty similar - combat against multiple opponents gets introduced in Dragon Warrior II, party management in Dragon Warrior III, and probably something in Dragon Warrior IV, but really, my eyes were kind of glazing over by then.)

It is often, and I think wrongly, said that what distinguishes JRPGs from Western RPGs is the density of plot. But off-hand, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Planescape: Torment all have plots that are at least as complex as those of JRPGs. Rather, I think it is this sense of duty, of integrating your actions into a defined narrative, as opposed to driving the narrative, that defines the JRPG.

Which has, I think, always been what has alienated me from the genre. I do poorly with duty. Not that I am irresponsible - hell, between this and TARDIS Eruditorum I'm actually keeping a five-day-a-week blogging schedule on top of teaching. Just that I have what I think is technically known as "authority issues." I do better with games that have a sense of play in them than ones where I have duties to perform.

Which is the heart of it. My childhood, at least in the NES days, was much like what my reader described - isolating and scary. I suspect mine got better before his did, unless I was just frighteningly naive about when the dick sucking started. But in the end, I was never one to take on some other duty in some other world. It is not that I dislike the forms and systems of fiction, but rather that I have always wished to play with those systems and learn to take them apart and put them back together.

But on the other hand, thinking about the Dragon Warrior games, it occurs to me that there is another way to view it. That the Dragon Warrior games, and JRPGs in general, offer the chance not to be somebody else, but to be somebody around whom the world is designed. To have a neat, tidy, and entertaining role in the world. In the end, they are not about being whoever you want, but rather about being someone who is wanted by the entirety of a world, however threadbare that world may be.

Perhaps nobody in Dragon Warrior loves me. But on the other hand, Dragon Warrior itself clearly does.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dragons Reconsidered (Dragon Fighter, Dragon Power, Dragon Spirit)

Among the easiest ways in the world to be mildly unnerved in a vaguely mystical way is to contemplate why Chinese and European traditions and folklore independently developed the idea of the dragon. It is easy to overstate the cultural universalism of this, given that European dragons tend to be evil bastards who want to eat you, whereas Chinese dragons are basically elemental forces, and are basically good. Theories abound for why the same image - giant lizards - would occur at least somewhat independently in two cultures. Three, really, if you're inclined to treat feathered serpents as effectively cut from the same bolt. But most of the theories are kind of crappy, involving stone age people doing fairly tricky bits of zoology with dinosaur skeletons or something.

Creationists posit that dragons are simply the result of primitive man's fear of being eaten by dinosaurs, which fulfills one of the many criteria by which a scientific theory is judged, namely that it is absolutely awesome and allows you to have people riding around on dinosaur steeds. All it lacks is giant robots. Unfortunately, it fails all of the other criteria like "actually being supported by any available evidence."

The most credible explanation seems to me this. Dragons are fucking scary. Snakes are scary. Dragons are big snakes. Giant birds of prey - also scary. Dragons look like giant birds of prey. Then add a nice big-cat-style mouth - again, scary, and you have, in fact, a creature that is basically built out of scary bits.

So let's continue to develop our theme of dragons. I have already suggested that the United States should be considered the effective successor to the "here be dragons" marker on maps, in that the United States occupies the fringe position on said maps. But that fringe position exists as a second boundary point between Europe and Asia. We are a dragon nation. But are our dragons the seething monsters of Europe, or the noble spirits of China?

The answer, of course, is neither. We are not one to purely adopt the traditions of another culture when we can muck around with them ourselves. And so our dragons are a hodgepodge. And, perhaps more interestingly, our dragons have by and large conquered the classic, mythic dragons.

As with most things from the NES era, our dragons of the late 80s and early 90s were at least partially imported from Japan. Certainly all three games today are.

Dragon Fighter is an easy name to mis-parse. Reading it, you may come to conclude that it is a game where you fight dragons. Alas, it is actually a game where you can transform into a dragon. A side-scroller of the sort that is bread and butter for the NES, the game manages to be bad in a bold new way previously unexplored by the alphabet, along, unfortunately, with several normal ways. The difficulty setting is completely on crack - you have one life, three continues, and continue points are only at the ends of levels. Which is more of a problem because the game frequently quickly swarms you with enemies.

The good news is, when you kill enough enemies you can transform into a fire-breathing dragon.

The bad news is, the dragon cannot turn around. And you are repeatedly attacked from behind. Making this a somewhat significant liability. But what's interesting is that despite not being a good game, and in fact actively crossing the line into bad game at numerous key points, there is actually something entrancing about Dragon Fighter. I will confess that I have steadily found the half-hour commitment to these games to be more and more of a burden. But I actually wanted to keep playing Dragon Fighter, despite the fact that I'd come nowhere close to clearing the first level.


It's tempting to give the facetious answer that it's because the game lets me turn into a dragon. Or that it features neon-green bears that throw fireballs at me. And to be fair, these are both desirable features. But no. If I'm being honest, the answer is more ineffable than all of that. The fact of the matter is, the game is oddly playable because there is an ineffable allure to it. Something about a game that starts on mysterious snow-covered ridges where a man with a sword who can turn into a dragon fights evil bears is just something that makes you want to try to overlook the flaws.

Dragon Power had no such problems. An adaptation of a Dragon Ball game, I suppose I am legally obliged to make some joke about how I do not know how to quantify Dragon Power, but I am confident that it is over 9000.

So that's done now. The game is rubbish. Interesting because it is a 1988 Dragon Ball game, meaning it's a Dragon Ball game from seven years before Dragon Ball actually made it to the US. Rubbish because it's not a very good game - an awkward controlling top-down action game - and the Dragon Ball connection is completely buried by the localization, probably on the very sensible logic that nobody in America had heard of Dragon Ball in 1988.

Here it is worth pausing and considering the secret history. That of those who knew both sides of the Pacific, and could navigate the Japanese colonization of the 1980s. Those who knew of Dragon Ball from scratchy VHS tapes swapped in the basements of convention centers. The material trappings of this secret history still exist - go to any sci-fi con and you can peruse a wide variety of flagrantly pirated DVDs - I got my copy of the Star Wars Holiday Special and the Warner Bros Censored Eleven at one of those. Before the Internet made nippophilia trivial, these prescient geeks laid the groundwork, ready to tell us tales of tentacle rape when it came time for our culture to join them. A tip of the hat, oh socially maladjusted manchildren. You did your duty well.

Dragon Spirit, more properly Dragon Spirit: The New Legend, is a NES sequel to what is supposedly an arcade classic. On the surface, its name is similar to Dragon Power - similar enough, really, to be worth remarking on. The word "spirit," when in something that has been translated into English, is always a fascinating one, because the concept of the spiritual is so culturally dependent. One of the major issues in translating Hegel, for instance, is that his major book - The Phenomenology of... well, here we get the trouble. The German word, "geist," means both spirit and mind. There is no equivalent English word, and so translations of the book choose between Phenomenology of Mind and Phenomenology of Spirit. Just to confuse people, however, when talking about the concepts in the book, even English speakers now tend to use the word "geist" despite the fact that, in their translations, the word "geist" does not actually appear at all. I do not know Japanese well enough to know if a similar issue exists here, but it is worth remarking on.

Of course, that worth may be entirely because of the high probability of wonky translation. The game has a classic Engrish opening - not grammatically incoherent, but just... odd. "The hero AMRU disguised as a BLUE DRAGON is finally about to fight the MONSTER ZAWEL." I mean, there is just nothing wrong with that opening. It tells you absolutely everything you need to know while simultaneously telling you nothing you want to know. From there, you, and I hope I'm not spoiling anything, fight the monster Zawel as a blue dragon. Here there is one interesting bit of the game - after you die or defeat Zawel at the end of the extremely short first level, you return to the title screen. If you defeated Zawel, you must play the main game, in which you instead fight "the evil master GALDA" as a blue dragon. If you died a horrible death, however, you play the game (with a slightly different plot involving Galda) as a more powerful gold dragon - a relatively novel difficulty selection for its time.

The game is your basic Gradius shooter, but has a nice pace to it - satisfying clouds of enemies, a difficulty level that doesn't make you cry, and weapons upgrades that have that fundamental dragonny coolness like "extra heads." Simply put, there are not enough games that give you extra heads. For the second time in three games, I found myself enjoying it and going back to play again.

It is something about dragons, perhaps. I had a similar positive reaction way back when to Dragonstrike. There are at least two more dragon entries to write, so I should perhaps hold some thoughts on dragons back, but suffice it to say that there is odd power to the image. Flying beasts roaming below the ground, guarding their treasure. Or noble serpents holding dominion over the elements. Dragons, unavoidably, are a part of us.

But in the end, I closed Dragon Fighter. I usually do with the interesting NES games worthy of more attention. That's the thing about secret histories. Unearthed, they lose their allure. Perhaps it's the same reason I never got into anime - Dragon Ball or otherwise.

But on the other hand, every once in a while, a secret history sneaks past my defenses. Speaking of which, excuse me, I'm going to go play Dragon Spirit.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Doctor Who and the Healing Of Death (Dr. Chaos, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Mario)

Those who are interested in more extended thoughts on the subject of Doctor Who than this single post can offer may be interested in the Nintendo Project's new sister blog, TARDIS Eruditorum, in which I watch every episode of Doctor Who, and then some.

Standard practice, as argued for by Miss Manners, is that the title "Doctor" should be reserved for actual medical practitioners, and that those whose doctorates are academic degrees ought not be referred to with the title. As the increasingly embittered holder of one of these degrees, I have mixed feelings about this. The ostensible reason for the rule is to preserve a sense of egalitarianism. Given that my PhD seems to have, at present, put me below the poverty line, unable to afford health insurance, and apparently unemployable, I am largely of the view that the situation might be a little too egalitarian.

Indeed, with the increasingly disturbing rise of the class of the intellectual poor - those with advanced degrees and no meaningful prospects - the concern seems almost quaint. With all the talk of liberal indoctrination at universities, who'd admit to being a doctor?

Except, of course, me. But that's mostly due to quirks of childhood. 18 years now watching Doctor Who will drive anyone a bit mad, and let's face it, I wasn't Captain Sanity of the HMS Normal to begin with. So yeah. I taught my one class today (all I was able to get hired for this semester) in a brown-based button-down shirt, red suspenders, maroon red bow tie, and a brown sports jacket. There may have been a replica Sonic Screwdriver in my pocket. Because, look, I've basically spent my entire life aspiring to be the Doctor, so I'm bloody well holding onto the title.

What is, to me, most interesting about the Miss Manners rule is the exception for medical doctors. The idea that the word denotes both an intense expertise and a qualification to heal is a strange one, and the two meanings are rarely well-unified. The three games for today all feature doctors, and about a 50/50 split on their nature between academic and medical doctors (with Dr. Jekyll being the somewhat liminal 50/50 figure)

Dr. Chaos is clearly not a medical doctor, but a mad scientist - annoyingly the most common cultural use for the academic doctor. In it, you play the brother of a mad physicist exploring his haunted mansion and trying to save him. Even without reading the manual to learn this, though, it's pretty clear that your avatar, who appears to have brought a knife and nothing else to the haunted mansion, is not exactly a doctor-grade genius. He spends most of the game tediously searching room after room with an incredibly awkward and ill-conceived control scheme (enjoy the five minutes it will take you to learn to do anything other than open things). Occasionally, in improbable places, he finds a warp to a proper action level. The rest of the time, he finds bullets. Or monsters. or both. The game is certainly innovative, but it turns out that point-and-click adventure and side-scrolling action game are a poor mix.

As, to be fair, are madness and science. Though part of this is due to the lack of cachet mad post-modern theorists have in a cultural context, the fact of the matter is that mad science involves significant alterations both to notions of madness and of science. The mad scientist is mostly just a proto-steampunk figure, a sort of bizarre fusion of garage-based tech visionary and serial killer that's mostly only cool for the excuse to do lightning effects and shout "Igor" a lot. There are numerous successful literary examples of the mad scientist, but let's face it, they're kind of paltry after the 19th century. One of the most famous, however, is Robert Louis Stevenson's creation of Dr. Jekyll.

For our purposes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is notable for being widely recognized as one of the worst NES games ever made. To my surprise, it actually avoids making the now-legendary Seanbaby list, but all the same, it's pretty staggeringly bad. The plot, so far as I understand it, is that as Dr. Jekyll you are trying to walk to church with the significant barrier that the townspeople are arbitrarily trying to murder you. This includes occasionally running up to you and setting off a bomb at your feet. All you have to defend yourself with is a walking stick that appears to have the effect, basically, of hurting you whenever you hit something with it. As you are savagely beaten by the townspeople, you steadily become angry until, without so much as a "What a terrible night for a curse," it suddenly turns to night, you turn into a monster, and you have to begin punching brains with legs to death.

For most people, however, the title refers to a classic horror novel. Its most recent major flare-up came in 2007, when Steven Moffat created a modernized version titled simply Jekyll. Posed as a sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's original novel that is set in a world where the novel has come out, the six-episode TV series is a masterpiece of contemporary horror. Its genius is that it is relentlessly inward-focused. For all the big and epic mysteries it builds, in the end, Jekyll is a six episode TV series about a man whose family is coming apart at the seams. Which is, increasingly, the most interesting way to do so-called genre television - in a departure from the moody realism era (which, frankly, was largely an aesthetic failure), the norm of the best sci-fi and horror of late has been to use genre trappings to tell relatively small stories on an epic scale.

(Video games remain trapped on the wrong side of that divide, in no small part because there are very few game designers making a serious effort to work on emotion in gameplay. Which is why licensed games are so often crap. Adapting a story across media is hard and requires a really good understanding of how both media work. Since storytelling in video games is still understood poorly, unsurprisingly we can't adapt things to the form very well.)

It is a different sort of doctor, however, where Steven Moffat has made his more enduring mark, taking over in 2010 as the twelfth show-runner of Doctor Who, a series he first wrote for in 2005 with the Hugo-winning two-parter The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. This two-parter has an interesting conceit, in that it is essentially a misguided and renegade doctor, in the medical sense. Basically, some medical nanotech confuses "dead boy with a gasmask" with "what humans are supposed to look like," and proceeds to helpfully rewrite humanity into dead boys with gasmasks who walk around creepily asking "Are you my mummy?"

Thematically, what is interesting here is that it contrasts the Doctor - who is most often portrayed as an academic Doctor, not a medical Doctor (in fact, he has on several occasions said he's not a medical doctor, but is instead a doctor of "practically everything") - with a sort of dark mirror. He is confronted with, in essence, healing gone wrong. Those who are fond of Derrida will recognize this as a thematic instance of autoimmunity - the idea of the body itself becoming the pathogen, which is a powerful motif.

Dr. Mario uses a similar theme as the basis for the entire game. In it, the pills Dr. Mario throws to destroy the viruses are in fact the major threat. The viruses in the bottle can never actually do any harm. In fact, it is the pills that can do harm, causing the player to lose the game if they obstruct the neck of the bottle. Thus Dr. Mario is, as a game, one about bad medicine.

What is further interesting, then, is that it is very difficult to construct a reading of Dr. Mario in which Mario is not, as with Donkey Kong Jr, a villain figure. He's the one throwing the capsules that destabilize the situation. And, I mean, the viruses are in a bottle. They're contained. There's no reason to be throwing pills at them except to tempt fate.

In Doctor Who, much of the action of Moffat's two-parter is centered on the fictional Albion hospital. The name harkens to the mythic origins of Britain, but also, necessarily, to William Blake, who positions Albion as the embodiment of a pre-serpentine, Edenic creation. On Television Without Pity, Jacob's excellent recaps of Doctor Who focused, with The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, on the metaphor of the healing of Albion - the idea of healing as a holy restoration. But this ignores a darker side of the notion of healing, and indeed, of the healing of Albion - one that is exemplified in both the Doctor Who story and Dr. Mario, as healing is the basis for an odd inversion in which the character is darkly mirrored.

What about healing lends itself to this odd inversion? The problem is that healing is in many ways a negative act. I mean this not in the sense that it's bad, but in the sense that it is an act of negating and restoring. Healing is wound-removal. Thus we must come to terms with the notion of a wound. Properly speaking, a wound is an injury that results in breakage of the skin. It is thus a destabilization of the body - a point where inside and outside are confused. Oral fixations, vagina dentatas, and gay panic defenses suggest that we are paranoid enough about these border points in our own bodies when they are supposed to be there. Thus the idea of a wound, which violates the integrity of the body not only without permission, but at an aberrant point, is scary.

But scarier is healing. Because to re-establish the boundary, the boundary must be transgressed repeatedly. Healing, by its nature, breaks in and out of bodily integrity. That it does so, necessarily, when we are helpless and wounded makes it all the scarier. The doctor is one who transgresses the boundaries of our body. Which is, in the end, the entire root of the horror of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - that Jekyll, the doctor who transgresses bodily boundaries, ultimately transgresses his own.

But oddly, healing is an excellent metaphor for the death experienced in video games. If, as I have repeatedly argued, the video game is based on a monstrous and unworkable tension between the body and the controller, and on the repeated frustration of the desire to fuse them, then a wound is an all-too sound metaphor for the act of playing a video game. When we play games, we turn our bodies against themselves, taking what was functional and mangling it into the tension of gameplay. In this regard, death is healing - the restoration of proper bodily boundaries.

It is no wonder, then, that the Doctor, one of the great fictional heroes of the 20th century, would repeatedly refuse to be recognized as a doctor of medicine. Or that Mario, when wearing a lab coat, becomes oddly sinister. The healing of Albion, in the end, destroys us all. To restore the pre-Edenic is, for anything existing now, a death sentence.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Singularity Will Not Be Divided Into Four Twelve-Minute Quarters (Double Dribble)

I do not think that I ever found video games to be a simulation. Really, I don't understand why you would. I mean, I'm admittedly no expert, but it's always been my working assumption that the similarities between being transported into a world of fire-breathing dragons and living mushrooms is deeply dissimilar to sitting on my sofa pressing buttons. Likewise, having, on at least one (probably exactly one) occasion in my life played a game of basketball, I can say with complete authority that it is almost but not entirely unlike playing Double Dribble.

Although I generally try to avoid letting this blog become a simple catalogue of the various perversities of NES games, preferring to leave that trick to trained professionals. That said, we should probably take a moment and honor what I am fairly certain is the only sports game ever to be named after an infraction. Much as it's fun to invent such classics as False Start, Offsides, High Sticking, and, my personal favorite, Failing to Keep Part of Your Foot Behind the Popping Crease. And we should maybe mention that the Select button is, to say the least, a non-standard choice for "how to skip the interminable opening animation that looks like a bunch of metal filings slowly coalescing towards what appears to be an onion, which then shoots balloons in celebration, all to the tune of the Star-Spangled Banner."

If Konami was trying to capture the intense confusion of a crowded, fast-moving situation, Double Dribble is spot-on. If you have possession it's not too hard to figure out which player you're controlling, but otherwise, all bets are off. Beyond that... actually, I can't get far beyond that. It's a sports game, which has always been a tough genre for me just because the genre is based on an ideal of simulation, despite the marked lack of correlation between that and a good game. Where Double Dribble works is at its most stylized moments, which are fewer and further between than most sports games of the era. Double Dribble aspired towards realism.

And yet it is ostensibly classic, which I can honestly say, I don't get. Which leaves me in an annoying position. Ideally, this blog is at its most powerful if I can expand from the actual games into a holistic view of the culture. That's the point of psychochronography - to use the material relics of history as a lens to reconstruct the whole of the time. But idiosyncrasy plays in. At some point the distinction needs to be made between the historical event - the Reagan-Thatcher era as the end of a period of history that is succeeded by the digital era that Reagan-Thatcher presided over the start of - and the personal - my growing up. The two are not the same.

But that difference is one of absence. Here, something ostensibly exists within the historical moment that just does not exist in my worldview of the time, nor in a secret history. I honestly do not care about Double Dribble, except inasmuch as my intense lack of concern poses fundamental epistemological issues.

Speaking broadly, the Reagan-Thatcher era was the end of an era of conservatism because they and their half-rate successors were the last of the conservative technocrats. Modern conservatism is profoundly non-technocratic, a viewpoint best exemplified in American conservatism inasmuch as its orthodoxy includes the rejection of large swaths of science. Technocracy depends on the fetishization of automation. One of the first things to be discovered in the digital era was that the embrace of technology posed massive challenges to the orthodox views of humanity. Just as the Enlightenment provided a rationalist revolution, the Singularity, debased a concept as that is, provides a post-humanist revolution against rationalism. Accordingly, the technocratic conservative withered and died save for a handful of Redneckbeards.

One consequence of this shift ought to be the abandonment of simulation as a model for technology, instead recognizing that the interaction with technology is such a fundamental shift as to render simulation of non-technological paradigms impossible. By and large, I think this is happening, although the elegance/verisimilitude divide within game design stubbornly refuses to go away and let elegance win.

In this light, then, Double Dribble is easier to reject as a game that falls squarely within a discredited ideology that believed that the orthodoxy of Enlightenment values could survive the technological shifts of the period. It is not a secret history so much as a foreclosed one - one that represents a set of values that simply cannot be recovered.

But what of imagination? Is not the point of psychochronography to reconstruct lost history through the discredited material fetters? Yes. But Double Dribble is not lost history. It's false history - an ideology so completely ruled out by subsequent events that there is no recovery to be had. Double Dribble, for all practical purposes, does not exist and never has existed. It is and was an illusion.

To claim to be able to rekindle the flame it never had would be equivalent to saying that history could be, for lack of a better word, simulated.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Elsewhere there be Dragons (Double Dragon, Double Dragon II, Double Dragon III)

Although the practice of declaring the existence of dragons in unmapped portions of the world was not as widespread as its popular reputation would imply, the practice did happen, which is always a bit of an interesting fact for those of us who occupy the continents that were previously marked as dragons, which are mostly North and South America.

Other than the Americas, however, the world has been pretty well known for a long time. Limited and indirect trade existed between the Roman Empire and the Chinese, and an entire civilization existed amounting to the collision between Hellenestic religion and Hindu religion caused by Alexander the Great. The result was that by the end of the 1st Century, a chain of parts of the world that knew about each other could readily be constructed from Britain to Japan. Thus as the Age of Exploration kicked off, the central question was not, as popular lore would have it, whether the Earth was flat (a problem that had been basically resolved some millennia prior), but how difficult a Western passage to India would be, and how big the Earth was. Pre-Columbian maps such as the Erdapfel showed Japan and Europe, and assumed a single ocean laid between them. What was assumed to be The Ocean turned out in fact to be one of two oceans with a big continent inconveniently dropped in the middle.

Thus another way to conceptualize America is as something that is defined by its interfering relationship between the extreme points of Asia and Europe. The extreme point of Europe is Britain, the endpoint of the Roman Empire, and the perennial outsider of European affairs. While, geographically speaking, Japan has fulfilled a largely similar role in Asia. The Americas, then, are the inscrutable balance point - the thing that prevents Japan and Britain from congruence. This conceptualization of America immediately makes two things clear. First, my sister is very clever for being an American in England to study Japan. Second, American Exceptionalism is a wildly boring theory compared to its alternatives.

In practical terms, British colonization of the Americas happened most successfully, and is a story we basically know. Japanese colonization, for all practical purposes, came in three waves. The first was  prehistoric, as evidenced by archeological finds such as Kennewick Man, and was extremely successful right up until the first major wave of European colonization systematically exterminated them. The second came in late 1941, and was an unmitigated disaster. The third commenced with advance waves in 1978 and 1980 followed by a full-scale invasion on October 18, 1985. This third wave was both the most subtle and potentially the most successful.

Both Britain and Japan colonized me. Britain did it both genetically, as a white American dude (and 1/4 Welsh. Represent! Or is that ryypryysyynt? One never can tell with Welsh) and through Doctor Who, about which I ought talk more, but not on this blog. Japan, on the other hand, comes through Nintendo. To identify as being part of the Nintendo Generation is to admit to colonization.

Colonization is a loaded term in many ways, and I ought be careful about appropriating it. All the same, it is striking how much of my life's cultural touchstones were either created in Japan or heavily indebted to Japan. All of this is true despite the intense exoticizing of Japan within my chosen subcultures - the way in which hentai, panties in vending machines, and schoolgirls are broad-based stereotypes. In fact, it is this interplay that seems to me most puzzling about this. Japan owned the cultural apparatus when I was growing up. Japanese studios produced the cartoons I watched and the games I played. They made most of the televisions my generation played them on, and the cars we were driven in to buy them. They built the infrastructure of my childhood.

Despite this, they were made into exotic Others for my amusement. Consider martial arts like karate. Growing up, I had several friends who did karate. But what this meant in practice was that a spiritual discipline - which is basically what karate is - turned into a way of making eight year old white boys feel like badasses. Which, let's face it, is not exactly a case of addressing a genuine problem. Nobody has gone around elementary schools saying "You know what the problem here is? The boys just don't have enough opportunities to be physically aggressive."

Which actually manages to bring me to Double Dragon and allows me to maintain the insane pretense that this blog is about video games in some fashion. There are three Double Dragon games. They form a classic series, but the word "classic" here needs to be taken with somewhat more salt than usual. Double Dragon 1, for instance, is not a very good game - slow, a bit awkward, and with bizarre technical limitations that culminate in the downright bizarre restriction that only two enemies can appear on screen at a time, a restriction that renders the game sort of perpetually dull. Beat-em-ups of this sort tend to depend on the problem of giving you more enemies than you can handle. Essential to the beat-em-up mechanic is that any given enemy is pretty easy, and it's when you have to deal with a horde of them that it gets tough. When you can't actually have a horde, it's not that the game becomes easy necessarily, but it does become... well... dull.

Much of this is due to the fact that the game is an arcade port - a common phenomenon on the NES. Arcade technology generally far surpassed the technology of home consoles (one of the many reasons that arcades were still powerful forces then, and are all but dead now), and so home versions were often strangely inadequate - the sprite restriction being a primary example. Though perhaps the strangest change between arcade and NES is the fact that the arcade had a two player co-operative mode in which, after beating the final boss, the two players had to fight each other to decide who won the girl, offering what is perhaps the most reductionist version of woman-as-object in video gaming to date. (Though the start of the NES version, in which a guy walks up to a woman, punches her in the face, and walks off with her is uncomfortable in its own right)

But it's never been the gameplay that made Double Dragon iconic. Rather, it was that it was among the earliest video games to have a truly ruthless sense of cool. Steeped in Japanese trappings, it is a game that channels the appeal of karate into a version that required none of the actual dedication and philosophical junk that made karate a bit of an awkward fit for the modern American prepubescent boy. In short, it is an intensely Japanese game about white boys punching things.

It is in Double Dragon II that things get somewhat weird. Part of this is due to the control scheme, which  has changed to a relatively counter-intuitive one in which each button attacks in a different direction. These directions are objective - that is, one button always attacks towards the right of the screen, the other to the left. Your character, however, punches in front of him and kicks behind him, meaning that which button is which attack depends on which way the character is facing. This is, to be blunt, awkward.

But the weirder portion is the fact that the game is set in a post-apocalyptic New York that is promised to happen in 19XX, i.e. somewhere within the next 11 years given that the game was released in 1989. The depths of irony of Japan entertaining American children with a story of martial arts in a post-nuclear new York are beyond what can be conveyed by anything other than the object itself. The game is sharper, more angular and harsh. Where Double Dragon had an almost cartoonish look, Double Dragon II looks as violent as it is. This fits with its focus on the post-apocalyptic setting, but makes the game even stranger.

This game speaks volumes to the nature of our colonization. By 1989, American youth culture was so redefined by Japanese culture that it is possible for a game in which a country that we dropped nuclear bombs on fantasizes about our own nuclear annihilation to become mainstream entertainment. I am not naive enough to credit the substantial liberalization of my generation and the decline of the fear of nuclear war on a single video game. On the other hand, it is not trivial that a generation grew up actively globalized and being entertained by a post-nuclear society. These things matter.

But it is perhaps Double Dragon III that is strangest. The game plays with typical late-NES sequel sloppiness - graphics feel rushed, flat, and lifeless. But conceptually speaking, the game is completely nuts, involving running around the world collecting Rosetta Stones, of which there are apparently several now, so that they can eventually fight Cleopatra. Sadly, the plot was sanitized for NES release, not in the sense of censorship but in the sense of adding sanity. But it is here that the end result of these lines of thought converge. Double Dragon III is, at last, a game in which the US is fully subsumed into a globalized pleasure.

Where once we were the dragons on the map schisming the known world, now we are the very mouth of the Ouroboros, clamped down tight upon ourselves. If we are a global superpower and exceptional, it is because we are a cipher, the still blank part of the map that connects one end to the other. The endlessly colonized chewtoy of the antipodes. This is not to minimize the lolling dinosaur that is American power, but to contextualize it. Our power comes because when you place dragons at the fringes of a spherical map, you place them at the heart of it.

When all roads lead somewhere, that place is no longer a place. The Nintendo Generation is not some new Lost Generation of ex-pats. Rather, we are far more terrifying - the Found Generation.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Dares and Other Nonstandard Measurements (Double Dare)

Nickelodeon is one of those things that a project like this can be written about. Like Doctor Who, and, of course, the NES, there is enough there to sustain psychochronography. The difference is that I'm not writing a psychochronography of Nickelodeon. Well. Not much of one.

Originating in 1977 under the name Pinwheel, I remember Nickelodeon in the mid-80s. My Nickelodeon was one that showed Inspector Gadget, and went off the air at 7pm every night to be replaced by A&E. This phenomenon was a holdover from a deal that expired in 1985 whereby the channel actually shared itself with A&E on a corporate level. By my time, the A&E block had spun off to its own channel and been replaced with Nick at Nite, which showed classic TV reruns including, most tantalizingly, Get Smart, but my parents' cable provider still used one channel for the two of them. 

Nickelodeon marked a significant change in the nature of childhood for one very basic reason - for the first time, there was always something on television aimed at me. Sometimes it sucked - in no small part because of the deeply dull Nick Jr. programming bloc in the middle of the day, although in hindsight my respect for things like the Noozles (one of the many Japanese things to get a less good US title - its Japanese title of The Wonderous Koala Blinky) has increased. David the Gnome, however, I have to confess, was and is boring.

But other times... oh, other times. Hey Dude and Salute Your Shorts. Early Doug and Rugrats. Clarissa Explains It All. Pete and Pete! I mean, Pete and Pete! How did Pete and Pete even get made? I mean, holy crap, I want to live in a world where people actually give money to other people while saying "Right, that Pete and Pete idea, go make some episodes of that." It gives me hope that there's financial security for bloggers like me.

And then there's Double Dare. Featuring an early-career Marc Summers, before they inexplicably reanimated him to provide a running chronicle of the history of processed food on the Food Network and in the process remembered his breathtaking gift at being charismatically smarmy, the show displayed a previously unimagined brilliance at converting the format of a TV Game Show to children's' entertainment. The trick, basically, is to have the game show be less a definable competition and more an arbitrary series of stunts, preferably employing large quantities of gross stuff.

The problem is that this translates poorly into video games. As a video game, Double Dare falls into the awful category of minigame collections. The genre was perfected, if the word applies, many years later with the Mario Party games. But as a genre, there are huge problems. This is mostly because coming up with one good game mechanism is, as the history of video games repeatedly demonstrates, hard enough. Coming up with a huge collection of them is generally impossible. As a result, few minigame collections are actually fun with any consistency. Double Dare is no exception.

The purpose of a minigame collection is, in fact, the social experience. The game is, in many ways, incidental - a pretext for social interaction. This is why Mario Party has its oft-mocked sense of arbitrariness. Because it makes the resulting social interactions better, even without actually improving the game. But much like Bomberman 2, in two-player mode on the NES, the game does not quite work - it is a game from the wrong time.

But unlike with Bomberman 2, the sense of vertigo instilled by this timelessness is far stranger. On the one hand, Double Dare can be approached as the piece of nostalgia it basically is - one element of the massive event that was Nickelodeon, and thus massively, fundamentally tied to 1990. On the other hand, Double Dare is a game that is strangely out of time, responding to trends in video games that hadn't quite sorted themselves out yet. In this regard, the game is oddly out of time - coming out at the wrong moment. Double Dare is uncanny, anomalous, albeit not, strictly speaking, alluring.

But it does have lots of slimy stuff. So that's something.

Friday, January 7, 2011

I Mock You With My Monkey Pants (Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr, Donkey Kong 3, Donkey Kong Jr. Math)

The ninth chapter of Walter Abish's lipographic masterpiece Alphabetical Africa begins "I haven't been here before," an amusing sentence given that the conceit of the book is that the first chapter may use only words beginning with A, the second A or B, the third A, B, or C, and so on. That's kind of how I feel.

There are few enough core concepts to the NES. Several make their first appearance in the Nintendo Project here. Mario, for instance. But this is also the first game we have looked at to be worked upon by the two most important game designers for the NES, Gunpei Yokoi and Shigeru Miyamoto. In fact, this entry is, by its nature, a sort of nexus point in the project - the first absolutely and unequivocally major game we've talked about since Contra. And it brought its friends.

Seeking as we do to understand the event through its material echoes, it is genuinely difficult to handle an event whose contours are so clear and definitively stated as this. Measuring Dirty Harry: The War on Drugs by its deformation of the surrounding regions of ideaspace is a challenge, but the scope of the problem is at least well-mapped, if only because of the profound lack of territory to map. This is different. The full scope of these four games is preposterously broad.

What we are getting at here is, frankly, what Nintendo is. It's something we've danced around, pretending that the NES era enjoys some independent existence. It doesn't. It was the product of a large amount of money being made off a small number of ideas. Nintendo rose to the top because Miyamoto and Yokoi had some very good ideas, and executed them well enough to dominate a decade of culture.

Donkey Kong is the first of these ideas. Belonging as it does on absolutely any list of classic video games, it is interesting to note that Donkey Kong, along with Donkey Kong Jr. and Donkey Kong 3, is not originally for the NES. In fact, the NES version of Donkey Kong is actively inferior to arcade versions, which have four repeating levels where the NES version only has three, due to excessively small cartridge storage in the early days of the NES. Oddly, when the game was re-issued along with Donkey Kong Jr. (The second game in the series - there is no Donkey Kong 2 as such) this level was not reinstated - indeed, it didn't actually get a home release on a Nintendo system until the Wii.

Donkey Kong forces us to confront hard and difficult truths about the nature of video games. Actually, that might just be me. See, I'm historically a skeptic of video game narrative. I don't hold to the extreme view of critics like Espen Arseth or Markku Eskelinen, who essentially deny that narrative has any relevance at all for game studies. But I do think that, as a matter of relatively staid empirical fact, video games are mediocre at narrative. Sometimes they outdo themselves, but it's usually by virtue of adopting a narrative style that is extremely non-traditional, and that does not really have enough good examples to develop a clear narratology of. By and large, I think there are many, many more good video games with minimal or poor plotting and excellent gameplay than there are good video games with brilliant narratives and dodgy gameplay.

What's interesting is that Donkey Kong is not a game with excellent gameplay. Donkey Kong is a game with, frankly, terrible gameplay. It does not hold up well at all. The jump mechanics are not awkward, but this is because there basically aren't any. Mario jumps in a predefined parabola. Jumping is thus entirely a matter of timing - do you press the jump button at the exact right moment. It is not until Super Mario Bros that this changes for Mario, and the change is, as I'll explain in a  few years, arguably the single most important development in video game control schemes ever.

But in Donkey Kong... no such luck. Add to that the fact that movement speed in all three games is a bit wonky, the line between where a fall is safe and where it will kill you is arbitrary and difficult to judge, and the games are dicey and kind of viciously arbitrary to begin with. My favorite example to trot out in "Donkey Kong is a badly made game" comes in level two of the NES version, in which it turns out that the floor a the bottom of the level is lethal and will kill you. Despite the fact that it is visually identical to all of the safe floors in the level. That's an astonishingly bad bit of design - among the most fundamental design errors in video games. It's so bad that it serves as a great basic example of the whole idea of providing visual cues for the player, and of the bad things that happen if you don't. It's something that Miyamoto, even as a first-time game designer, should have known better than to do - I am hard pressed to think of many errors that massive that were allowed through by publishers.

And yet Donkey Kong is a landmark of video game history. And not just because Mario makes his debut in it. No, Donkey Kong is a massive game in its own right and on its own merits. But why? The answer is in the upper-left corner of the first level of the game - Mr. Kong himself. Donkey Kong is basically the second video game character to matter, the first being the year-older Pac-Man. Pac-Man has a lovely NES version to save for later, so I'll stick to Donkey Kong.

Short form? He's brilliant. We can start with his name. Contrary to legend, it is not a transcription error on a character who was supposed to be Monkey Kong. No. Donkey was picked deliberately - to give the character a feeling of simple-minded stubbornness. Kong was picked, of course, to evoke King Kong, thus tying him into the great tradition of movie monsters. He is the first video game character I know of to have an expressive face. This is huge. From the manic, toothy grin he makes as he pounds around between throwing barrels to the panicked, goofy look on his face as he falls at the end of the rivets level, Donkey Kong is an antagonist that forces you to personify the game.

That changes everything. And is basically the example of how Nintendo grabbed the medium of video games and ran off with it, dominating the industry unquestioned for a decade and remaining a major player through 25 years and counting. Because they recognized how narrative can work in video games. Video games do a poor job of telling a story, but they do an excellent job of sketching one - of making a few strokes, and leaving the player to fill in the rest. On his own, Donkey Kong is nothing more than a silly monkey. To say that Miyamoto's work in characterizing him renders him a deep character is ridiculous. He is barely sketched out with enough detail to become a brand icon - the equivalent of Aunt Jemima. (Ooh, dodgy comparison there)

It's when you put a player and the basic frame of interaction into the equation that something interesting happens. The vagueness of Donkey Kong becomes an asset when paired with the existence of a player. This is because the normal Aristotlean notion of what a character is is, in many regards, inadequate from a readerly perspective.

Writers of fiction, when they create characters, tend to create them in extreme detail - making idiosyncratic decisions about things that are never going to appear in the work of fiction itself. They often attempt to realize their fictional characters in a sort of high-definition, insisting on knowing them so well that they can answer any question about them.

Readers do not. A reader's perspective is similar to that of someone watching a movie and looking at the set. It does not matter if the set extends beyond the confines of where we will see the actors. In fact, at some point, it usually doesn't. A movie set is a contained illusion that depends on the fact that the audience's perspective is going to be limited to the areas where the illusion holds. A fictional character works similarly - the character need only be worked out to the extent that it informs what happens within the limited perspective the work of fiction. Once the work of fiction ends, the character does not need to have any further definition. In fact, I'll go one further - the character does not have any definition outside of the work of fiction. A character is defined entirely by what happens within the scope of the work of fiction.

(I say this without comment on the writerly process of character development. Overdeveloping characters may well be an extremely useful technique in writing fiction. However, it is a mistake to assume that because the author has overdeveloped the character this has any direct impact on the reader.)

If we instead treat characters as narrative functions, we get, I think, more interesting results. In Donkey Kong, it is easiest to understand Donkey Kong himself not as a set of defined traits, but as a function that responds to player input. Donkey Kong is that part of the game that tries to kill you. And its a mischievous, stupid, stubborn monkey. This allows for emotional investment in the game. The game taunts you and mocks you, and in doing so makes you want to beat it more.

To see how brilliant this bit of sketched storytelling is, one need only jump ahead to Donkey Kong Jr., a game that retains most of the irritating play mechanics of Donkey Kong, but switches the roles around - Mario is the villain, Donkey Kong is the captive, and the player is Donkey Kong Jr. The result is, frankly, a bit of a mess. Donkey Kong Jr. is as lousy an avatar as Mario is a villain. The game has no emotional resonance to speak of.

For the third edition, Nintendo swapped it around again, with Donkey Kong as the villain. This time they abandoned the play mechanics, turning the game into a shooter. It's neither good nor bad, and its main innovation is probably the worms that look pissed at you whenever you shoot them, another great bit of adding personality to video games. The most interesting thing to note about it is the fact that the protagonist, Stanley the Bugman, is more or less wholly forgotten, leaving him ripe for a sort of Land of Misfit Toys revival where, in some elaborate and postmodern Mario game, he rises up as Dark Stanley and seeks to ruin the world of Nintendo Games just as he has been ruined.

And then there is Donkey Kong Jr. Math, a non-classic in the edutainment field, itself a field that nobody save the Minnesota State Government ever really figured out what to do with. Basically, if you took Donkey Kong, took out all the actual threats and challenges, and added arithmetic, you'd have Donkey Kong Jr. Math. It's as good as it sounds.

But even in Donkey Kong Jr. Math, there is something to be said for the game. When you defeat your opponent, they thrash about in an absolutely gorgeous display of agony. It's cute enough not to be traumatizing, but upsetting enough to add just a touch of sting to the defeat. This sort of thing was Nintendo's biggest invention - the one that's still enduring. Better than anyone else, before or since, Nintendo has been gifted at making video game characters, and at using them.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Walter Pretending (Dirty Harry)

Fluffy dog on feet this morning, tongue flicking against bare ankle. This town is indifferent to me. I have seen its true face. The streets are little-used curves of residential development and the developments are full of the new rich and when the storm sewers are finally snowed over, it's going to get very muddy. The grotesque brown sludge of dirt, salt, and snow will pile upon the curbs and all the yuppies and helicopter parents will look up and shout "plow us!" and I will look down and whisper "Shut up, I'm playing video games."

They'll be fine. Miasma of illegal immigrant labor will come for the worst, mostly Brazillians out of Danbury. Steel blades strapped to aging pickups scrape asphalt and hurry out by sunset. The rest will fend for themselves. Archways of snow hurled by weekend warriors' diesel manhoods. In time the snow will melt, and the ground will deform in freshly thawed muddiness, and the stench of methane will give way to the stench of freon as winter recedes to memory.

While in San Francisco, Harry Callahan scrawls his design on a morally blank world. It is 1971, and having crushed the appallingly misguided youth rebellions of 1968, the military industrial complex has finally kicked back, put up its feet, and resumed the business of cultural domination. Dirty Harry, among the first success stories of this process, is a glorious piece of Nixonian politic of the sort that spent 37 years sending Hunter S. Thompson to his grave.

While in parallel, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney wired together Computer Space, a clone of Spacewar!, among the earliest video games. The rise and fall of the technocrat begins its most visible upwards trajectory in this wreckage - a trajectory that, for a brief moment, gave some sense of vision for the future - some sense that things might be going somewhere. That's gone now, future and past together, as the remnants of the Great Boxing Day Blizzard of 2010 pool to slush in the dawn of 2011.

And in 1990, as the Reagan/Bush/Thatcher axis of Nixonian politic turned to slush, Dirty Harry: The War Against Drugs creates the absurd visage of a video game adaptation of this technocratic ascent. The game is an ill-structured side-scroller, a classic game of man-with-gun-shoots-bad-guys in every way except for the classic bit. Its subtitle encodes the worst social regressiveness of the post-60s era. The very idea of the game is a towering monument to technocratic excess. Except Dirty Harry was never the technocracy. Dirty Harry had no need or use for the technocracy, except inasmuch as they grudgingly sign his paychecks and he goes and takes care of the things they'd rather not think of.

What is interesting is that the order of events is not what you would expect. Dirty Harry, in 1971, was the first formation of the Nixonian hero. Or, no, let's be even more accurate, he was the second. Nixon was the first. The avatar of our own internal darkness, Nixon was brought out of the most needed retirement in human history to serve as the electoral knight of the forces of inertia. No. Not inertia. Nixon  was not merely a force of non-change, but a force of rolling back change. He is our id turned to the task of undoing human progress - to the Dark Ages if the Pliocene is a bridge too far. Dirty Harry is merely what happens when one undertakes the insane task of turning Richard Nixon into an action hero.

It was Reagan, Bush, and Thatcher who weaponized Nixonian thinking, that embraced the parallel legacy of 1971 worked out by Nolan Bushnell wiring together video games in a California garage. The technocracy rises, its culminating moment coming in 1990 as the Dirty Harry video game and the World Wide Web flare out into the world. For a moment, it appears that Nixonian politic fades in light of this. Like the angry, nihilistic thrashing of the late 70s and 80s has done what 60s utopianism could not, and has finally eliminated the darkness. The world lights up like a fiberoptic Christmas tree as the ground gives way from Cyberpunk to Cyberutopianism.

For a flickering moment, we lose sight of our own history. For a moment, it feels possible to ignore Watchmen, to ignore Dirty Harry, to ignore looming nuclear armageddon. A saxophone may yet lead us from darkness, but it was not to be. The radiant light of the information age turned dark in only a decade. The ensuing darkness lasted eight years. Like an engine overheating, our cycles of utopia and dystopia move faster and faster, collapsing the atavistic past of the post-apocalyptic and the glimmering future of the utopian into a frozen miasma melting into the storm sewers.

And now the odometer of the planet ticks over, bringing us further from the future with every shudder of history's engine. Winter seems a needed cooling, a shutting off of the heat to quell the riot before it even begins. The sludge of ice suspended on a frozen ground that cannot absorb it serves to chill the blood lest we come to the sickening realization preceding a cartoonish drop off a cliff.

Those of us with manual manhoods may yet have our shovels in hand. Let us then indulge in a moment of archeology. Perhaps we shall fare better than my dog, managing something other than a mangled mole corpse in the snow.

This lone Clint Eastwood figure cutting across the landscape proved an only partially witting forking point for the zeitgeist. The central moral question of Dirty Harry - should we be rooting for this guy - is by necessity answered in the affirmative somewhere on the road to Dirty Harry Part Five, more properly called The Dead Pool. That this answer is alarmingly depressing is no matter in the face of a $235,000,000 film franchise.

The question is revived in 1984 by Alan Moore in Watchmen, as Dirty Harry's archetype pulls on a shifting mask of inkblots and fights crime. Rorschach is actually based on The Question, a then-obscure post-Spider-Man creation of Steve Ditko. Ditko's Ayn Rand fetishism was starting to bleed through the linework of his urban psychedelia when he created The Question, and would finally break through completely when Ditko thinly reskinned the character as Mr. A, possibly the only superhero named after an Aristotlean logical principle.

It is easy to catastrophically misread Watchmen and think that Alan Moore sympathizes with Rorschach. There are two reasons for this. First, Rorschach is a fantastic character. Whatever Alan Moore means for him, he exceeds it and steals every scene he's in. Second, the comic ends with Rorschach's journal being the sole plausible means by which the machinations of Ozymandias might be revealed. As we are, for obvious reasons, pretty uncertain about the ethics of the guy who dropped a massive fake alien on New York City and killed a frighteningly large number of people, it is easy to mistake this possible avenue of justice as a remotely good thing.

To make this misreading requires two related errors. First, one has to read Watchmen, maybe V for Vendetta, and preferably nothing else Alan Moore has ever written. Tragically, many people are all too willing to oblige on this front. Second, one has to ignore the fact that Moore repeatedly paints Rorschach as a dangerous sociopath with intensely fascist viewpoints. The fact that this proves a stumbling block for anyone reading the comic is a sad commentary on, basically, everything ever.

Instead of serving as the deliciously targeted critique of fascist superheroics that it was, Rorschach got adopted as the iconic and default form of comic book vigilante for, basically, the next twenty years. The only major developments in the Rorschach concept were basically to add guns and robot arms.

Parallel to Watchmen was Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, a comic whose fame rests largely on the fact that it has most of the sex and violence of Watchmen wedded to the moral sensibilities of Dirty Harry. In fact, it basically is just a Batman comic where Batman is Dirty Harry. There are persistent rumors that there were occasional plans to adapt the comic to film with Clint Eastwood playing the role of Batman.

This in turn brings us to the problem of Clint Eastwood, the rare actor to have a distinct three-act structure to his fame. First, Clint Eastwood played the living embodiment of badassery, a role he had mastered mostly in the 70s and 80s. Eventually he moved on to phase two, being a director, before finally, in 1992, coming to the third and most interesting act of his career, playing washed up and retired badasses in movies he directs himself.

At the age of 80, Eastwood's fourth act surely involves decomposition. But here is where the future gets eaten - in a wave of expensively preserved geriatrics. This is a documented problem. We spend our lives watching the past die off, sustaining it at the cost of futurity. Mediocre video games, 21 years past their prime, are dusted off for historical retrospective without regard for the social cost.

As our anesthetic covering of ice, sand, and dismembered gopher sluices towards the drains, this is the secret uncovered beneath its drifts: the secret of the badass. Whether it is Dirty Harry, Rorschach, or Batman - the badass is always conservative, in the sense of conservation - the sense of maintaining what is, and what was. The badass is the enemy of futurity.