Thursday, March 24, 2011

Monster at the End of This Post (Formula One: Built to Win, Frankenstein: The Monster Returns)

What does it mean for a monster to return? We recall that the monster is from the Latin monstro, a verb meaning to show. A monster is an object of spectacle and wonder, stalking along the line between the fantastic and the terrible generally referred to as "the uncanny." For a monster to return, then, is to be re-shown. 

The most obvious analogy for re-showing is the phenomenon of the television repeat. It is important to understand what a television repeat is, and, more importantly, what it was. One of the things that is an emerging theme over at TARDIS Eruditorum is the fact that there is a fundamental difference between television in the 1960s, which was expected to air and then never be seen by anyone again, save for maybe one repeat that summer, and television today, in which it is assumed that the episode will be immediately rewatchable online, have a DVD release, and be re-studied endlessly. The television repeat, however, is a phenomenon from before that.

In America, it is closely tied with the phenomenon of syndication. With a wealth of local stations, many of which broadcast 24/7 without material reliably being provided by networks for all hours, buying runs of old television programs to show was simply sound financial practice - as opposed to in the UK, where national public service channels were the norm and new material was provided constantly. But crucially, all television was still an event - a single broadcast. If you were unable to get to your set in time to watch it, it was gone.

Monsters must be taken in that tradition - a spectacle that exists only in the moment of its demonstration. After that, it is captured into memory, known, and no longer a monster. Once the act of unveiling and staring is done, the monster is just a caged beast. So for the monster to return is an attempt not to re-capture the monster, but to de-capture it. Not even to release it, but to remove the experience of ever having known it and understood it as caged and defined.

In some ways, to continue the television analogy, the nearest equivalent is a sporting event - a piece of live television that not only bound to the moment of transmission, but that is fundamentally unrepeatable. The entire purpose of a sporting event on television is that the final outcome is actually unknown to anyone at the start. The sporting event cannot proceed with narrative teleology. Any attempt to write a narrative to a sporting event is simply a lie. So in Formula One Racing: Built to Win, the purpose of the game is very much to provide a series of these un-teleolgoical events. The title, in fact, is a clear commentary on the lack of teleology of Formula One Racing. Yes, every car in Formula One is built to win. Every car's teleology is victory, but hardly any of them will actually attain their own teleology. It is only after the race that the event is captured by teleology, as one car becomes usefully built to win and the others lose all purpose save the enabling of victory in the first place.

Likewise, by 1990, when Bandai released Frankenstein: The Monster Returns, Frankenstein had gone from monstrosity to teleology. Consider the fact that, in the original, Frankenstein is firmly the name of the scientist, not the unnamed monster. It's not until the existence of cheap horror films that Frankenstein began to firmly signify the monster who, rather than the cobbled together freak show of Shelley's novel, had a coherent and designed look.

Oddly, then, Frankenstein is one of the few monsters one can imagine a return of - the shambling flesh decoupage of Victor Frankenstein's monster looming up behind the green bolted head of Boris Karloff.  There is something that is clearly and definably lost in the caging here. Karloff's Frankenstein is a marker for what we know is a far scarier beast. Even for those less literary folks who have not read Shelley's novel, there is the sense that there was something scarier before, that there is something more to the monster than Franken Berry cereal.

Certainly Bandai's game makes a stab at rescuing the gothic horror of the original, but any attempt at a monstrous return is swiftly consumed by the fact that the game is, and this should not be a remotely surprising refrain at this point in the Nintendo Project, complete shit.

And yet. (Do I say that as often as I think I do?) Perhaps in the wandering through a non-descript gothic village awkwardly fighting forgettable versions of classic horror monsters, there is something of Frankenstein's monster. The collage of viscera that is Frankenstein's monster bears more similarity to the miasma of pixels of a crap Nintendo game than we perhaps would like to admit. There is a reason the bad games of the NES era are still fascinating.

Frankenstein's monster is the cut up remnants of others stitched into monstrosity. The simplicity of the NES means that games have a certain uniformity and interchangeability. A bad game, then, stitches together the fragments of good games into a grotesque parody of fun. Perhaps the monster did return.

1 comment:

  1. This brings back memories on Super Mario! Thanks for posting!