Thursday, June 16, 2011

Insert Coin to Continue

I've mulled this for a bit, and imagined various degrees of apologia in how to present it before ultimately deciding against the absurd narcissism of thinking it matters.

The long and short is this - I'm putting this blog on hiatus. There are a number of reasons - waning interest in writing it, frustration at what I perceive as a lack of quality in recent entries (Your mileage may vary, but it turns out that as nobody is paying me to do this and I'm my own editor, my opinion of my own writing really does matter more than anyone else's), and a need to free some time in my week for other projects including ones that might actually make me some money.

The official position is that we'll resume again someday and make it through the rest of the alphabet, but let's be honest, that position should probably be filed along with those "under construction" banners of 1990s Geocities pages and the idea that Half Life 2: Episode Three is ever coming out. Then again, Duke Nukem Forever and Chinese Democracy eventually got releases, so you never know. But if we're being honest, we should admit that this is an indefinite hiatus, that Rover has not actually gone to a farm where he can run so much as been euthanized, and that Mommy and Daddy are probably never coming home.

What it comes down to is that I still love the idea of this blog, but feel like I don't have anything particularly interesting to say about NES games right now and I'm not enjoying saying things I don't find very interesting. When and if that changes, we'll be back. Until then, I am still blogging three times a week over at TARDIS Eruditorum, and other writing projects are actively being worked on.

See you around.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Persistence of Mercury (Harlem Globetrotters, Hatris)

The Harlem Globetrotters make an odd subject for a video game, given the degree to which their history consisted of kayfabe basketball. Not that there is anything wrong with this history. The Harlem Globetrotters were, by any reasonable measure, a celebration of numerous aspects of African American culture. But they were not basketball as such. Rather, they were a simulation of basketball designed to focus on the moments of maximum fun and trim out the others.

In other words, the Harlem Globetrotters are themselves basically a video game. That is, after all, what basketball video games are about. Trimming the boring bits and getting to the fun bits. It's basketball without tedium, at the frankly fairly low cost of also being without point. But given that sports are already kind of inherently pointless, this just isn't that massive a problem.

The process involved here, alchemically speaking, is one that we would associate with Hermes, also known as Mercury. His name is also given to a planet and metal. Or, rather, all three of these things share the same name because, for a period of thought during which quite a few linguistic roots developed, they were the same thing. The metal, god, and planet were all simply manifestations of a larger concept.

This concept, broadly speaking, was change, but change in a very specific sense. Mercury is not the change of the passage of time. Rather, mercury is change in the sense of creation. Mercury was viewed, classically, as essentially the stem cell of metals - the inchoate chaos from which anything can form, along with, crucially, the process of that formation. Mercury, in other words, is the act of creation itself.

We cannot survive in a world of pure mercury. Some system is needed. Neal Stephenson, among the most brilliant living writers in English, wrote an entire trilogy that ends up with this observation as its main conclusion. But we equally cannot survive in a world that is fixed. There must be mercury - inchoate moments of unfathomable creation. There must be sparks. This is what the various dunks and stunts of the Harlem Globetrotters are - the moments of inspiration and passion and beauty that make basketball worthwhile. They are pure mercury. But they are not the world.

Still, a video game based on it turns out to be kinda dumb. It turns out not to be possible to take something that is already a distilled simulation of an object and create a distilled simulation of it. All you get is a generic basketball game with a lone "stunt" that you can pull to get an automatic basket. There is nothing to it. All is fixed and determined, and there is no room for chaos.

There is not enough mercury in the world, however. Case in point, Hatris. From the creator of Tetris, Hatris is another falling objects game in which you try to stack sets of five identical hats with six columns to maneuver in and hats falling in pairs. It demonstrates a key facet of game design, which is that just because you came up with one brilliant concept it doesn't mean you can do it again. Hatris isn't bad, but it lacks all of the spark of Tetris.

Ironically, of course, hats themselves lack that vital spark of mercury they once had. For some time mercury was a vital ingredient in manufacturing felt hats, leading to lots of toxic vapors and the phrase "mad as a hatter." Broadly speaking, mercury in general is something we lack today. Where once it was something everyone encountered, whether in thermometers or toys, now the fact that it's horribly dangerous and toxic is used as a pretense to remove it from as many things as possible. The resulting lack of brain damage and death is, admittedly, nice.

But something is, as we can see in Hatris, lost in the conversion. There is no spark to the game. Which is a problem. The falling objects genre, after all, depends on the dynamic of the game slowly but surely spiraling out of control until you die. This requires mercury - a formless chaos to which you descend. This is the problem with Hatris. Death may be inevitable in it, but there is no sense of things getting out of control. Usually you die because there aren't enough slots for the hats - six slots and six varieties of hat means that it is basically certain that you will be unable to maintain a stack for each hat type. But this dynamic never feels like spiraling out of control. It just feels like bad resource management.

Tetris, as we'll talk about in the Ts, avoided this. The dynamic that kills you in Tetris is subtle. You don't quite know why you always die. Thus there is a sense of chaos. In Hatris, you know why you're dying, and get no opportunity to be driven mad by it.

Mercury will kill you, sure enough. But so will life. In the end, the cause of death is always inevitability. Better to live in a world where that fact remains strange.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Widening (Gyruss)

I've been down on video games lately. Admittedly, I've been down on life lately. But I'd be lying if I said I enjoy this blog as much as I used to. Much of this may be down to the fact that I've been pretty hostile to video games lately. Some of this may in turn be down to the fact that NES games are largely a bit lackluster. But in any case, this blog is feeling like a chore, and I dislike that.

So let's take my own advice.

One of the things that I've been contemplating as I teach the handful of sections of courses I can get is the fact that we've really done an awfully cynical job of teaching people to read. Not necessarily a bad one - actually my students are very good at following plot and comprehending the reading. Apparently we've gotten that down. No, where we fall flat is that we've somehow created an army of cynical readers who go looking to dislike things.

It's our own fault. The unfortunate downside of the wave of "ist" and "X studies" approaches. Not that these have been by and large negative - the work they did in opening up how we think about art and power is invaluable. But so much of the work that all of them - feminist theory, queer theory, disability studies, post-colonialist theory, the lot of them - was to show us the seedy and uncomfortable underbelly of "classic" texts. The problem is that now we know to use this approach, and it becomes increasingly difficult to actually enjoy anything.

The actual ists and Xes have long since sailed past this problem into new territory with their approach of finding marginalized literature worthy of more attention than it's been given. This does not mean the "liking the bad thing ironically" approach of hipsters, which is really just what we've been calling "camp" for decades now, only with more cynicism and patchoulli. Rather, it means finding literature that gives voice to people the classics often ignore.

But there's another tactic I've been thinking about lately. What I call redemptive readings. It hit me while watching Love and Other Drugs, a film that is neither particularly good nor particularly bad. But watching it, I found that I could watch the film and enjoy it by focusing on a narrow, somewhat idiosyncratic, but largely valid reading of it in which the film is about playing Anne Hathaway's bland starlet characteristics off the fact that she actually can act and provide a compelling portrait of someone with a fatal illness, and how it makes it very difficult to support a for-profit medical industry in the context of the film. Whatever its myriad flaws, that bit seems good.

I call this redemptive reading. Going into something with the active goal of liking it, and trying to find a reading that makes it work. Ideally this shouldn't mean ignoring any obvious flaws, but it should mean trying to find reasons to like something. The appeal of it is that it's charmingly subversive. People are going to watch television. Television, by its nature, is never going to actively give voice to oppressed and silenced minorities, because it's a corporate-controlled broadcast medium. Finding good things in it is, more often than not, going to involve taking something that might not actually be good and thwapping it upside the head until it behaves.

So let's try that with NES games. Here, most of the time, we don't have terribly large racial issues, we have very standardized and entrenched gender issues, and the class issues are... well, OK, that's where we're going to need to be working.

Thankfully, for our purposes, Gyruss is not half bad to begin with. It's a rotational shooter. By which I mean that it basically functions in the shooter mould that I'm running out of things to say about, except instead of constantly scrolling forwards you move in a circle around the playfield. Enemies come in along the Z-axis, and cluster at the center of the screen for you to destroy them.

The gameplay is pleasantly pacey, the controls are at a nice midpoint between intuitive and frustrating, and almost every time I died I felt like I deserved it. The minimum threshold is thus cleared. But, for once, there's more than that!

I mean, one thing I am increasingly coming to believe is that the interesting parts of video games are the play mechanics. This does not mean I am becoming a hardline ludologist, as I still believe play mechanics can tell a story, but, for instance, if we take my favorite game in recent memory - Braid - the story extends from the gameplay. It's a story about the passage of time, memory, and regret, but all of the aspects of the story are simply thematic meditations on things about the gameplay. When the game introduces time-locked objects, the story introduces the idea of mistakes that cannot be undone. When it introduces the ability to have a shadow Tim carry out one set of actions while Tim carries out another, it introduces the idea of regret for lives unlived.

The thing about Braid that I think a lot of people miss, despite it probably being the most important thing about the game, is that it is one of an increasing number of games to operate in a lyrical mode as opposed to an epic mode. Implicit in this, of course, is the idea that the nearest textual medium to video games is poetry. And so Braid, instead of telling a narrative story about rescuing a princess, instead offers an extended poem in which video game mechanics, growing up, the apocalypse, and love are all intertwined into a... well... braid.

It is impossible to port this approach directly to Gyruss, simply because there's not enough formal complexity to have the multiple moving parts that so enliven Braid. And yet all the same, there is something to it. These endless loops and circles that stretch the solar system as an infinite tunnel straight through the back of my television. The spinning about in giddy circles, dodging and destroying wildly as all the cosmos lifts off my screen and through me. This is what games are for.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Indentured Servants In Disguise (Gyromite)

The Other Nintendo Generation always seemed cooler. Long after reason had concluded it couldn't possibly be as cool as I thought, it still seemed cooler. How could it not? It had a robot.

The Robotic Operating Buddy, or ROB, was actually just a bit of marketing. After the 1983 crash, no retailer would touch a "video game" system, seeing them as a dead fad. As the legend goes, Nintendo created ROB so that they could sell the NES as a "toy" rather than a "video game system."Obviously it worked, but once it worked and the NES was launched as a viable product, ROB was quietly relegated to that most ignoble dustbin, completely being ignored forever.

The Nintendo Generation is used to this dustbin, lingering as we do in this abandoned space before the crash. Somewhere, without our consultation, there is the sense that a decision was reached as to where it was decided which generations would be able to live out their lives in a functioning society and which ones would be left to rot, and that the cutoff hit us squarely in the face. This is the driving engine of a society in which the marriage rate is plummeting. Why start a family with no prospects?

Of course, there are perils in chasing this analogy too far. For one thing, it leaves us as the equivalent of ROB. Which is to say, a temperamental piece of plastic used to control a lousy video game like Gyromite. This is, by many standards, a degradation too far. Tens of thousands of dollars of debt spent earning useless college degrees, moving, as far too many of us have, back home, the complete abandonment of any future, these are things we are gradually coming to terms with. Saying we're as bad as ROB? Ouch.

The biggest problem with ROB was not that it sucked, which is an impressive accomplishment for something that sucks. It's biggest problem was that it was actually a viable robot. This is what those of us who were not in the ROB end of the Nintendo Generation did not realize at the time, and still to some extent resist fully wrapping our heads around. Robots, in video games, serve a very limited purpose. They are giant killing machines. This is literally their only function. Yes, in Mega Man Dr. Light screwed up and made a bunch of robots that were not giant killing machines. Then Dr. Wily helpfully came along and repaired them all.

(There is admittedly a slight window for helpful sidekick robots, but let's face it, that's basically just Rush.)

But ROB is actually a robot of labor and utility. ROB's function is... well, actually, he just moves objects around among several stacks. But still, this fits in with our understanding of the world fairly smoothly. He's a glorified forklift. He is less a buddy than a source of cheap - free, even, labor. And in Gyromite, that's basically what he is - the robotic assistant who helps a scientist get his laboratory back under control.

Not that slave labor dynamics are terribly unusual in video games - it's why I was able to mine Gradius for comedy. But generally it's the player who is forced to work for free. The player doesn't usually get to join the ranks of the bourgeois. Certainly the player is not encouraged to take home a friend and exploit their labor as part of the gameplaying process.

Which is perhaps why ROB was ultimately doomed. Designed as he was to make video games masquerade as toys, once the basic deception was completed and people liked video games, he served no purpose. Or, worse, he served a negative purpose. Nobody wants to force toys into a life of cheap labor. Toys are things we form emotional bonds with. Things we love. It is not good to love the face of your slave.

But perhaps the problem is that we ever had a distinction between "toy" and "video game" in the first place. If both are modes of leisure, why the effort to distinguish them? Surely the appeal of something like Katamari Damacy is that it's a video game that acts like a toy, just as the appeal of a Nerf gun is that it is a toy that invites a simulated game. The flaw with ROB - other than sucking, of course - may never have been the frisson of inappropriatness generated by an enslaved toy. It may just have been that the video game required a slave in the first place.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Welcome to Warp Zone (Gun Nac, Gun Smoke)

Gun Nac is one of those games of glorious weirdness. The sort that just sail gamely past "sense" into that bizarre twilight realm of juxtaposition and absurdity. On the one hand, it is a bog-standard shooter of the sort that the NES had far too many of. I'm nowhere near enough of an afficianado of the genre to identify gradiations of quality. This one seems pretty good, but honestly, I don't know that I'm the one to comment. What's interesting about it, frankly, is how often you're attacked by giant rabbits. As is kind of implied by the screenshot, which is one of the most surreal moments in an opening crawl.

These willfully strange games - often the ones that prompted us to declare the non-existence of Japan - play an important part in the Nintendo generation. The pieces of childhood that endure in our memories are, after all, the bits that we cannot quite make sense of at the time. I remember vividly a single image of a picture book in which, if my memory serves, a forest full of animals was possessed by some unsettling presence. The image was of a forest with numerous pairs of pale blue eyes staring out of it sinisterly. No context of this book remains for me, and I am at an utter loss for what it was. I remember only the bit that was too strange and too scary for me to quite make sense of.

Gun Nac, although not scary, belongs to this tradition - the sort of bizarre and incomensurable game that occupies mental space out of sheer weirdness. These are what we should demand of our games, frankly - that their images and play mechanics entrance and drive us mad long after we play them. Video games shouldn't be disposable entertainments, but permanent mindwarps. They should change who we are forever, like any art. This need not be universal. Not every game need warp every person. But every game should be able to warp someone.

For better or for worse, Gun Smoke is a game that does that for me. It's an oddly difficult game for me to get a clear critical bead on. I think I hate it, but I'm utterly unconvinced that I have any good reasons for it. It's entirely possible that my reasons for disliking this game come down entirely to the person who introduced me to it.

See, my main Nintendo phase was in elementary school. But I had a secondary run at the NES in college, and in the course of that, I had a very close friend. This friend was one of the few people I've ever met that I felt intellectually awed by - a seeming virtuoso in several subjects with an intellectual certainty that I found appealing. Plus he was one of the most popular people in my larger social circle. Never being one for mass popularity, I'd long since learned (and still from time to time exercise) the trick of being a close friend of the most popular people as a far more efficient path to social acceptance.

(There is a cold strategism here that even now leaves me uncomfortable - a cynicism to the way I approach social circles and friends. All I can say is that people came to me much less easily than how stories work or arsenals of facts. I had to learn social interaction consciously, and I approached it like I approached learning anything. Yes, it's left me as a weird and kind of fucked up person. It's still preferable to crippling social anxiety.)

And so I became, for lack of a better word, entranced by him. I wasn't the only one. The intellectual falling out with him I'll describe shortly was not the only falling out I had with him. The larger one involves personal matters that are not mine to tell about.

Suffice it to say that I was enormously invested in this friendship - with an investment that, much more through my own fault than his, made it a very one-sided friendship and not an entirely healthy one. (This is not to say that he was blameless - merely that I clearly was in part at fault for any unhealthiness in that friendship.) And in my defense, I still care about many of the things I first came to care about through that friendship - absurdist theater, aesthetic philosophy, Kant, a particular band of film, television, and, as it happens, video games. He, after all, shared my love of the old NES, and we enjoyed exposing each other to games. One of the ones he exposed me to was Gun Smoke - a novelty in that it was effectively a Gun Nac style shooter in which you were a cowboy and cold only fire on very precise and defined angles. It was a pretty good game. But I can't separate it from all the other feelings I have about him to judge it.

Which is odd. It is not like the game was an important part of the friendship. It wasn't. It's just that that I have never really heard the game mentioned by anyone else, and so I have no other associations with it. In truth, the bulk of my entrancement was intellectual. The result was an unfortunate flirtation with what amounted to a fusion of Kantianism and Objectivism - a combination that should amuse anybody who, like me, had a longer Ayn Rand phase than you want to admit to.

What it came down to was a very standard sort of libertarian anarchism. Believing in the supreme importance of individual free will, any restrictions on it whatsoever came to seem unjust. The end result of this logic, if followed with ruthless consistency and a prioritization of the ethical over the practical, is pacifist anarcho-capitalism. I understand very, very well how one gets to the conclusions that declare that taxes are an unjust threat of force on the part of the government and amount to theft at gunpoint, and how one decides that one has an inalienable right to say no to someone begging you for help because their life depends on your sacrifice of something.

After all, I reasoned, there was something fundamentally unfair about the social contract. I had never signed off on it, and never consented to be a member of this state. Why should it have power over me? Why was I never given any alternative to fealty to it?

Over time, as I said, the friendship crumbled. I took issue with some decisions he made about his life and about his relationships with people I cared about. He did not so much take issue with my objections as not care, which was certainly his prerogative. This coincided with my changing my mind on a lot of intellectual matters as I got to reading more extensively than he had on several topics. In time, alienated from him both personally and intellectually, the friendship by and large withered.

What this means, however, is that I can point to the specific essay that made me a liberal. Appropriately for my overall status as the embodiment of all that is evil it was by a French Marxist who (seemingly consensually) murdered his wife. Louis Althusser's "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," which everyone really should just read.

To condense a lot of philosophy, what that essay ultimately made me realize is this: it is impossible to have a conception of the self or of "I" absent a social order. There is no way to exist or experience the world in the first place, to conduct any observations or theorizations about the nature of the world, or even to think without the existence of a society. Our sense of who we are, the language in which we think, the entire structure of our minds, these things come from existing in a community - from responding to other people and to often unstated norms and structures of society.

If there is no way to imagine ourselves separate from our neighbors and our community, suddenly the virtues of libertarian self-interest crumble. If I understand myself not as the divine center of the universe but as something that only exists as part of a larger society, suddenly it becomes a lot harder to justify personally profiting at the expense of that society. Combine this with more realizations like that social anxiety not withstanding, life is generally improved by a sense of community and by having people you care about and you get... well... liberalism. If I, and with me my entire sense of reality and everything I have ever loved or enjoyed, exist only because of the rest of the people in my town, state, country, and for that matter planet, then it suddenly becomes very difficult to come up with any compelling explanation why we would ever allow one to die of a treatable illness or be bankrupted forever by the bad luck of getting sick.

Or, put another way, I no longer saw the social contract as some irritating burden foisted upon me. Rather, I saw it as a pre-requisite for "me." I did not consent to the social contract because I couldn't exist to consent without it. Through circumstances utterly unrelated to my free will, I was part of a culture and society. I've still not come close to working out the consequences of that, but it's very clear to me that they are far more complex (and fascinatingly wonderful) than those I had previously embraced.

And that is, in the end, how I moved on from an emotionally destructive friendship that still troubles me in some ways to being a liberal. I stopped being able to accept the idea that my health and well-being should come at the expense of somebody else's.

Some day that sort of progress might include liking Gun Smoke.