Thursday, April 21, 2011

Strange Doors That We'd Never Close Again (Gargoyle's Quest II, Ghouls and Ghousts, Ghoul School)

A larger, more monolithic experience in video games than Ghosts n Goblins seems impossible to find. Surely one of the all-time classics of the NES era, the game is through and through brilliant. But playing it, it is strangely difficult to pin down why. Other than the music, an admittedly brilliant piece, there is some sense of futility here - a game with oddly clunky level design and oddly unfair enemies. But as with many classics, there is something else - some undefinable trace that nevertheless cannot be ignored or reduced out. There is no reason this game should be great, and yet, despite all of its flaws, it is. In the end, this turns into a paradox. The game is monstrously hard for a classic, far harder than any massively popular game seems to have any right to be. There is no reason why it should be beloved in a world where few can clear the second level. The game is sheer brutality, positioned in plain sight, and strangely accepted despite it. But this is, perhaps, an important lesson - monsters, in point of fact, rarely lurk.

All the same, a sense of ineffable fascination is necessary to the function of a monster. It is not that we must want to gaze upon the monster - in fact, it is in some sense essential that we wish the monster to be unseen. Rather, we must not want to look away from the monster. Whether it is an artfully rendered or stuck in a clumsy video game with pathetically bad graphics, we are compelled not to avert our eyes. This is the basic dynamic upon which the monster functions - we must want always a sort of stasis. Whether the monster is seen or unseen, we want first and foremost for it to stay that way.

An unnecessary redemption of a sequel, Gargoyle's Quest 2 manages the odd feat of being a completely unnecessary game that's still pretty good. On paper, it's a train wreck - a pseudo-RPG sequel to a classic arcade game that fuses light RPG elements with wall-jumping/gliding action gaming featuring the game's main villain as the protagonist. Even if any part of this works, the combination is so bloatedly unnecessary that something has to go wrong. And yet somehow it works, perhaps because it development appears to have been conducted with no second thoughts or hesitations, plowing gamely forward to produce a game that works in spite of itself.

For it to stay that way, of course, one must move. None of this is because you want it. You had what you wanted, before that damnable Red Arremer swooped down to take her. Your armor sitting there, mere feet away, crumbled in a post-coital heap as she was stolen. Now you have no choice but this endless forward march. No second thoughts or hesitations, compelled by lust or duty not to avert your eyes, you march on, up these horrific towers, pushing desperately for an unnecessary redemption.

In its loathsome form, the alien is eye and bubbling flesh. These are the monsters that make up the bulk of Imagineering's 1992 NES game Ghoul School. Imagineering was the in-house development studio of Absolute Entertainment, which means this is a game from the people who brought you the classic A Boy and His Blob. (Now there's an entry that merits a complete rewrite and expansion for an eventual ebook version of this blog) Which means about what you'd expect - pathetically bad graphics, incredibly clumsy controls, etc. Avoiding getting hit is a matter of dumb luck, with nothing to insulate you from your environment. And yet despite this, like A Boy and His Blob, there is a sense of ineffable fascination.

In spite of itself, the monster holds strange power. Inevitably disappointing as it may be, we cannot do without its visage. What is a hallway without the possibility of unknown footsteps behind you? What use are shadows that do not flicker in the corner of your eye? What use is the faint trace or echo if it is not a portent of far worse possibility? We depend on the gnawing knowledge that something has to go wrong, that in some gap or stammer, some repeated bit of data, some awful fiend shall emerge.

Its arrival is necessary, the inevitable culmination of a stretch of graves and zombies. Whipped aloft on leathery wings adapted to ride the thermals of this awful place, its fur burns a brilliant crimson that is not of this world. It is not the rusty thrush of blood, nor the rich purple of wine, nor even the incinerate glow of embers, but rather the heat of some other awful fire from a place mercifully far from here. Its hair crackles and pops, a million tongues of fire spasming across its skin. Even before the acrid stench and unholy glow can be seen, you know it is there. This fur is not designed to insulate this creature from its environment. Already the incandescence within its fell gut generates such heat that from the beast's mouth spits searing flames. Rather, this fur insulates the world, imprisoning the balefire in its loathsome form.

Monsters, in point of fact, rarely lurk, at least not unexpectedly. The entire reason a monster is scary is because it is expected. The monster is only scary if you know it is there. Where this turns into a paradox is that the presence of the monster drains its fear even as the inevitability of its arrival is necessary.

Some awful fiend shall emerge. That is the way these things always end. A stretch of mortal peril interrupted only by the emergence of larger mortal peril. This feebly armored life builds inexorably and constantly towards this inevitable end. And yet there is some sense of futility here. Some part of you knows that you are not the first nor the last to trod this ground. Or, a far worse possibility, that this is neither the first nor last time you yourself have trod this ground. That this entire affair is some ghastly encore, a repeat performance in an epic that will go on to rival Cats for sheer frustration. That even if you survive, it will all turn out to be some fiendish trap, a game within a game, your past performance a mere echo, disassembled out of any sensible order, if such a thing ever existed, embedded in a larger, more monolithic experience.

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