Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Pataphor of Academia (Gradius)

Don't saunter in like you own the place. Why would you? You're not here for glory or fame, nor even for thrill. It is not that you don't enjoy it - only a lifelong love of reading and learning leads one to strap one's self into the cockpit of Vic Viper and single-handedly defend Gradius from the unceasing onslaught of the forces of Bacterion. But that enjoyment is not that of a cheap dilettante, but rather a calling - a duty.

No. Remain humble. Think about the weight of expectations. How proud your undergradius mentors and family are. Resolve to stay in touch with your mentors, and seek their wise counsel even as you learn more about advanced theoretical concepts in your field like "Option" and "?" and to, as necessary, embrace them in lieu of the neo-Aristotelean principles previously instilled upon you.

Be puzzled at the lack of significant orientation, but not too puzzled, as this might be misconstrued as not being up to the task. It's just like undergradius, surely. You show up at your classes, do the reading, pay attention when it's not brain-sporkingly banal, and bash out some papers. Remain puzzled why the minimal orientation there was seemed mostly there to get the Marxist stoners in your department girlfriends, but figure that Marxist stoners by their nature have it fairly rough and leave well enough alone. Select "1 Player" and get on with your course schedule.

Flail about. By and large this is acceptable, at least for now - a tap of the reset button and you're back to square one. Grades don't come in until December, and it's all riding on the boss battle anyway - one final 20 page seminar paper where you have to shoot the core. May as well use these early days to work out the kinks. Call it a post facto orientation.

Eventually make some real progress. Feel almost confident as you go into the boss fight, laden with upgrades and ready to roll. Get knocked flat on your ass with a B-, which you are reliably informed is basically a failing grade in Gradius.

Worse, discover the black hole of error. How one error sets you up for more. Flub anything and be set back ten paces with all your upgrades taken away, told "Try that thing you failed at again, only this time start from a worse position," and sent on your way. Realize that this describes your life - that the C you got in a high school math class because you were a depressed teenager and blew off your homework did keep you from the Ivy League college that would have gotten you into a top tier graduate program. Marvel at the insanity of a gameplay mechanic in which early errors metastasize that aggressively.

Start over, enjoying the illusion that "Spring Semester" and "Fresh Start" are synonymous. Take it slow. Be methodical. Cut out distractions.

Eventually realize that if you'd just stuck around and looked puzzled instead of confidently signing up for Dismantling Heteronormative Fortifications: The Dialectic of Laser and Double, someone would have explained something. Belatedly find yourself getting oriented. Remain puzzled why this apparent mentor figure gets to start out with considerable advantages that you don't. Especially because he is apparently incompetent, since you figured out that you want to pick up the power-up items ages ago and not just blaze past them.

Narrowly survive the boss fight this time. Decide you've got the hang of this. Wipe out on level two.

Year two. Begin to question the basic structure here. Wonder why the good people of Gradius are so opposed to giving you decent armaments to start. Why is the military defense of a planet subject to a scarcity economy in the first place? It's not like you're out in deep space getting blown up for your own good. You could be working a nice corporate job and making four times the $11k you're pulling out here. You wouldn't even need loans to feed yourself. Instead you're pursuing a career in public service. The least they could do is give you free speed ups. And photocopies.

Become increasingly politically active about state cuts to the planetary defense budget. Wonder why giving corporate tax breaks to attract business is preferable to having an educated pool of workers. Wonder how these supposed businesses are going to succeed on Gradius with Bacterion hordes marauding them constantly and no basic composition skills in their workers. Impress Marxist stoners with your determination, and be invited to their parties. Accept. You can get a girlfriend there.

Discover belatedly that the system has a built in "cheat code" that enables you to continue where you left off if something goes wrong for you, thus at least removing the possibility of ultimate and cataclysmic failure. Ask at the next Marxist stoner party why nobody told you about this. Be told that everyone already knew you could take an incomplete.

Realize that you hate Marxist stoners and become a hermit who doesn't leave the house except for library books. Write e-mails to your department chair suggesting needed reforms to the departmental system. Be thanked for your feedback. Mistake this as an accomplishment.

Armed with your newfound cheat code (and nothing else because you just died again), begin preparation for the big one - a continual assault, taking incompletes as needed to get to the prize at the end - defending your dissertation, beating the final boss, and getting a tenure-track job as a planetary defender.

Bog down in basic research, trying to figure out the extent of your task. Discover that there is no optimal path on the upgrade curve. Wipe out in an awkward spot from which even with continues you cannot effectively recover without more weaponry.

Discover to your surprise that you have passed your exams anyway.

Learn that budget cuts mean that there is no funding for planetary defenders past their fourth years. Rush to graduate. Finally learn about the cheat code that gives you a decent set of weapons on command. Wonder why the fuck there's a cheat code to get to where the game is actually playable. At last feel capable of making a serious and determined effort to finish.

After more deaths than you can count, stagger into your dissertation defense and discover the final boss is basically a complete wimp that you never needed any weapons or skill to defeat.

Beat game.


Discover that post-graduation life is just the same thing again with faster enemies.

Discover that planetary defense on the professional level is still a scarcity-based economy and that they are moving towards a model where part-time defenders defend against large swaths of bactereon invaders via "online sections." Discover that there are no jobs.

Discover that you are thirty and unqualified for any meaningful job and will reach middle age without health care or significant savings.



  1. First metaphor constructed on a video game to convince someone to go into engineering.

  2. This is probably my favourite piece you've done. Great.

  3. You are an awesome writer!