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.


  1. I feel like I've encountered the term 'redemptive reading' before - I'm pretty sure it comes up in theological texts now and then. In those situations, it describe an attempt to do something like what you're describing (since the 'isms and post-Xes are there in theology too) - to approach a terrible text (say, a Biblical genocide or something) and treat it as if it was good and then see what insights emerge.

    I also wonder about videogames - whether trying to use them to tell epic narratives is necessarily clunky (it is almost always clunky in execution I think) and whether more thematic 'poems' would be more appropriate to the medium...

    Unfortunately, the closest textual relative of an rpg text is the instruction manual. Kind of a hard thing to sex up, though it can be done.

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