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.


  1. I owned that game back in the day. I found it much easier to play when I had a controller with an auto-fire function.

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  3. Gun Nac is good time pass game for me. I face some difficulty to complete the stages of this game. The graphics work of this game is good.
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