Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Embodied Gruesome Band (Dungeon Magic: Sword of the Elements, Dusty Diamond's All-Star Softball)

sound on the NES is that it primarily works by altering rectangular waves instead of the more common sinusoidal waves. This is responsible for the relative harshness of the sound, and is what made electronic music such an initially anarchic force in pop music. Thus one is never dying or being born, but merely alive or dead. Death is not an event but a state-of-being, and one that is ingrained into the muscle memory, rendering the death drive as corporeal as the territory/map.

The digital nature of the game's corporeal embodiment is also responsible for making the technological limitations of the game an integral part of the death process. This is particularly true in terms of the music. See, when the NES crashed, it would often freeze in a state where it was emitting sound. Absent the system altering the sound waves to produce music, the system would simply emit a single unchanging tone until it was turned off or reset. This unchanging tone is profoundly unnatural - regardless of what tone it happens to be.

In the context of a system crash, the existence of this tone adds stress to the already tense moment of Heideggarian recognition of object-as-thing. The NES is never quite so iconic as when it is not working, hence the universal recognition that taking a non-functioning piece of electronics and blowing in it is a valid method of repair. In this regard, there is perhaps no game, in my world, quite as iconic as Dusty Diamond's All-Star Softball, in that as soon as I pick what field I want to play my simulated game of softball on, the game crashes to black and emits a continual tone. Which I, of course, dutifully listened to for half an hour straight. (No, I'm lying. Not even I am that crazy.)

Which returns us to one of the recurring images of the NES, death. Ooh, yes, another cheery blog entry. I've argued before that death is the fundamental mode of the video game because, at the end of the day, eventually all video game systems are turned off. (It is interesting to note that my other major blog, TARDIS Eruditorum, is about Doctor Who, which is instead fundamentally about life because the story need never actually end.) The experience of playing a video game is defined by the three key failure points that exist - beating the game, losing the game, or smashing into a technical wall in playing the game.

It is the space within these perimeters of disfunction that what is interesting in a game takes place. The odd contours of this were far more apparent in the NES era due to the lack of a now-commonplace (and rightly so) invention, namely the automap. The question of mapping in video games is, mercifully, not one we have to think about much anymore, due mostly to the fact that games take care of it for us. But back in the NES era, players were largely expected to create maps themselves.

This is bizarre these days - the only remotely recent game I've played without automapping that I can think of is EverQuest, a game that was, for the most part, the last flourishing of the grotesque sadism of early video games, and even there it was only tolerable because extremely high quality maps were posted on the Internet by players.

But in, say, 1989, when Dungeon Magic: Sword of the Elements came out, the idea that the player would have to draw up a map was simply assumed. Certainly the game is not remotely playable without a map. The technical limitations of the NES otherwise demanded an extremely limited depth of vision and repetitive scenery that more or less completely eliminates most of the non-mapping senses of direction we have.

What is interesting about mapping in a video game is that it throws away one of the primary assumptions of modern cartography. In mapping a video game world out by hand, the map is, in fact, the territory. The kingdom of Granville has no actual territory, existing already as a set of abstractions and rules within the technical confines of a 5.25x4.75x.75 inch plastic container for circuitry. Being already abstract, the map generated by the player is not a mere obtuse abstraction of the material, but rather a translation of its signification to a slightly different language. In learning the abstraction of Granville with sufficient depth to map it is the only genuine way to actually experience the territory. In video games, the land is not the territory.

It is easy to wax nostalgic about the corporeal nature of engagement with the game. Though there is a certain strange perversity to doing so. After all, the current trend in video games is corporeal engagement - the Wii, Move, and Kinect all rely on it, as does the idea of touch interface promoted by the DS, iOS, etc, and even the stereoscopic illusions of the forthcoming 3DS. But the strangely sanitary nature of the engagement makes these systems rarely ready-to-hand - and in the rare cases where they have been, remedies like thicker wriststraps and Wii Condoms (I believe the official name is "Wii Remote Jackets") have been rushed out to restore the seamlessness of the experience.

But more to the point, corporeal engagement with technology sucks. This is at the heart of the reason that, for instance, the Daleks are one of the most iconic and successful designs for a monster-type villain ever - because they look like homicidal kitchen appliances. In other words, they are the embodiment of the fear of technology's physical embodiment. Well, that and you can readily become a Dalek by sticking a trash can over your head and making a Hitler salute, making it ideal for childhood games. Though I'm in no way confident that this is not actually the same reason stated in superficially different ways.

But the linking of corporeal technological engagement and death is significant. Because they are linked. The reason one needs to become the territory/map is that the alternative is death. Failure to adequately and safely navigate Granville (and I should insert a parenthetical here about the strangeness of naming your pseudo-medieval kingdom after a small town in central Ohio) results in death - in my case, usually by being eaten by the bright purple giant snakes that are apparently the indigenous lifeform of the area. This results in one of the finest death messages on the NES, "Your life is over." Which, actually, is a bit harsh.

But it marks the true sadism of the video game. Installed on our wetware, the video game takes permanent residence on our central nervous system, making possible the Nintendo Project. Because once this is accomplished, game states not resulting in further play - previously a problem primarily because they cost a quarter to fix - become personal deaths - the actual destruction of part of the nervous system.

Properly, of course, video games form an oscillation in which one is embodied and disembodied - cast back and forth between a state of life and state of death. Usually when we speak of oscillation, we have in mind a sinusoidal wave - that is, a wave with distinct rises and falls. But the video game, particularly in the 8-bit era, is wholly digital. The ramping states of the sinusoidal wave simply do not exist here. The NES control pad, unlike modern control pads, is non-analog. Thus where modern controllers distinguish between a button being lightly pressed or smashed down, the NES controller did not. The four directions of the D-Pad were simply absolute - up or not-up. Eight direction control could be simulated by simultaneously pressing two directions, but no gradiations between Up and Up-Left, for instance, could possibly exist. Indeed, Up is not even the opposite of Down - in emulation it is possible to press both buttons simultaneously, and doing so in fact has distinct effect in some games, leading to a number of key hacks for speed-runs.

The purely digital nature of the games, it should be noted, extends even to the game music. The key thing to realize about synthesized


  1. And the for another time.

  2. An RPG series for the DS, Etrian Odyssey, has as a key feature "making your own map," because apparently people were nostalgic for not having any idea where they were. Also, dying repeatedly, because the games are bloody hard. Fun, though.

  3. You yourself seem to be stuck between the binary of childhood and adulthood here, smashed up against some kind of wall, emitting your repeated sound. Far from unnatural, though, this is the mode of young adulthood. There is no automap for middle-agedness, unfortunately.

    To fix a broken cart, I always used to stick it in the slot but stop before the backside of it cleared the ledge of the console, such that when I pushed it down, it would not snap into place. Then, with unnecessary force, I would push down on the cart and incrementally slide it forward until it crashed down into the console. I was (and remain) convinced that this is the best way to make the damn things work.

    Also, I see a link between that continual, unnatural tone that the NES produces upon freezing and the voice of the Daleks. When the console locks up, it may as well be emitting the frantic scream itself: "EXTERMINATE!"

  4. I always hated games that required you to make your own maps...drove me bonkers, they did.

  5. oh, i see what you did there, making this post an infinite loop. very clever.

    "your life is over" reminds me of my favorite error message from windows media player: "catastrophic failure." might as well have just said "somethin' done broke!" for all its informativeness.

  6. I feel your pain about self-mapping. I recently started playing the classic text adventure "Zork" again. The lack of visual clues doesn't assist in mapping the territory a bit, either.

  7. I never played the original Zelda for that reason. I didn't want to waste time having to make my own maps to avoid getting lost in the game world. Another peeve was the lack of password or save functions, so if you wanted to finish a game you had to do it in one sitting. This wasn't possible at time because of the pressures of schoolwork, doing chores for your parents, or the nagging feeling that I should be spending time with my friends, playing with my dog, or getting exercise, fresh air and sunshine.