Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Manufacturing Enjoyment? (with apologies to Walter Lippmann)

So, this morning I woke up and came down to campus, and what to my wondering eyes should appear but the second minor snow New York's gotten this year.

That honestly didn't rhyme the way I originally typed it, but see what happened? Sorry about that.

And I'm only partially sure about this "second snow" thing. We had this bizarre out-of-nowhere flurry in late October, I think, and that's the only other one. This one seems to have spent itself for the moment, but looks like we're due for more "rain/snow" this afternoon. Meaning flakes + wet, gross sidewalks. Oh, New York, how I love you!

This is all almost beside the point, because what I'm really interested in this morning, after a thread at Gamespite's forums sparked a few thoughts, is this question: why are there so many ice/snow/winter levels in video games? Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario Bros. 3 and arguably the original SMB all have one, as does almost every other Super Mario Bros. game. So does Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Arcade Game for the NES. Sonic 3 has one; Donkey Kong Country has one; Metal Gear Solid basically is one. Lots of adventure games and RPGs have an ice section, including the ice cave shoehorned (sorry; it was!) into Ocarina of Time and the incredible Snowpeak Mountain Mansion in Twilight Princess, the aptly named Winters in Earthbound, Phendrana Drifts in Metroid Prime, and Death Peak in Chrono Trigger.

I'm tempted to assume that it's just an easy way to throw some visual variety into games that would otherwise be dominated by green and brown, and honestly, that's probably not inaccurate. Mario games in particular are known for their almost elemental stages: desert levels, water levels, fire levels. Again, this could be a matter of visual interest: desert levels use lots of yellow; water levels use lots of blue; fire levels use lots of red and orange. These swaps of huge swathes of the palette do create what amounts to an artificial feeling of variety; they also come with all sorts of associations that make for easy categorizing and theming. But come on, it's so much more fun to dig a little deeper and come up with a more interesting if not necessarily more correct answer. Let's just assume that it's not just convenience. What would that mean?

Well, I kind of suspect that if we deny ourselves the obvious assumption, winter levels may be a clever, perhaps even a subconscious, way of playing on the ways we think about things like color and time. I've mentioned that there are these "elemental" levels in the Mario games; the 3D Zelda games have much the same thing going on; the first Metroid Prime does this too. There's a lot of emphasis in all of these series on the tie between colors and certain kinds of environments, and indeed we might take these connections as suggestive of particular elements--not quite the ancient elements of earth, fire, air, water, but something fundamental. Certainly they seem to suggest certain crucial ecosystems. For instance, both Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess start off with a trio of dungeons that have something important to do with, in order, plant life, fire, and water. Ocarina of Time hammers in the connections to these elements later on with yet more forest, fire, and water temples, all explicitly and chromatically associated with their respective elements, but the early dungeons in Twilight Princess form a clear progression that's synced up with a color palette that moves from green to red to blue. Thinking back to Ocarina, Link is in the first three dungeons collecting gems colored green, red, and blue. Even Wind Waker has a forest dungeon and a fire dungeon.

Each major Zelda installment (and I'm only somewhat unfairly excluding Majora's Mask when I say this) seems to be playing more and more with the series' set of conventions, to the point that many have said that Twilight Princess is essentially a remake of Ocarina of Time. I really do think a lot of this perception comes from the games' persistent connection of color to concept. And these concepts that are deployed in the games work well because we already believe in the kinds of worlds Nintendo's able to concoct. A desert world should be predominantly yellow, mostly rounded because of all the sand dunes, should have a bright sky, should feel dry, etc. An ice world should be predominantly white, might have some craggy rocks or ice crystals or perhaps some rounded snow drifts, should feel dry but crisp, etc. A forest world should be mostly green, have lots of dirt and stumps and trunks and branches, should have dim lighting because of the forest canopy, and should feel somewhat moist. All of these ideas come out in many of the desert, ice, or forest worlds we encounter in modern, sophisticated video games.

But where things get kind of strange is in games where these ideas come into close contact with each other, which I suppose means pretty much any game. Something like Metroid Prime seems almost odd, because you can take perhaps five minutes and travel from the lush, green overworld of Tallon to the fiery underworld of Magmoor to the wintry landscape of Phendrana Drifts. I realize that the overworld of Twilight Princess is supposed to be huge, but if you're thinking too literally about the game's spaces, it can feel quite strange to travel only a short distance and go from a beautiful, quiet lake scene to a cold, harsh alpine environment. The environments in Mario games have always been connected arbitrarily; if there's one message you can take away from the way Mario moves from world to world in one of the 3D games like Mario 64 or Mario Galaxy, it's that this is a Mario game, and Nintendo doesn't particularly care (and hasn't ever cared) if you think there's a natural progression to the levels or not.

Still, I think we sort of need these things in our games. I realize that I've brought the point back to where I started, and I'm running the risk of creating a circular argument wherein the very fact that these differentiated worlds exist means that we need them. Yes: what I seem to be setting up here is a theory of manufactured enjoyment, an internally defined and enforced regime of comfort gaming propagated by Nintendo and other publishers. But that's not what I'm saying. It's always possible to get out of these circles by saying that the system came about and continues because it works. Yes, its continuation depends on its original instantiation; it wouldn't be here if Nintendo (et al) hadn't decided it was a great way to design games. But that doesn't mean it's not an aesthetic decision that resonates strongly with Nintendo's audience. Nintendo probably would not exist today if it weren't for the staying power of its major franchises, and I suspect that a lot of those games' success relies on their ability to touch their audience. Furthermore, I don't think Nintendo would have stuck with this wonderful system, seen first in Super Mario Bros. 2 but really raised to an art form in Super Mario Bros. 3 and later games, if it hadn't been for the fact that this progression of colors and elements and concepts didn't appeal to something embedded deep in the human psyche.

So here's the thing. Basically, a good game takes a fair amount of time and effort to finish, right? Something like Twilight Princess takes, what, sixty hours or so for the average mortal to complete? But even something like Super Mario Bros. 2 felt long in its proper context, and that game, of course, is intended to be finished in a single sitting. These games take commitment, particularly a time commitment. We need these sign posts of advancement, these markers that show a movement from the part of the game world we're leaving behind to the part we're entering. These connections of colors and ideas, these webs of association, work the way they do because in some sense we need a game to feel like real life; we need games to have visual cues tied to progression, the same way that the natural world does. Most of us use manmade rhythms to understand the passage of time. Many people are students or educators who use the school calendar as an index of movement. Some people are in business and rely on the fiscal year calendar to understand progress (or a lack thereof). But almost all of us (inhabitants of equatorial or polar regions excepted, I guess) understand the world's natural rhythm of seasons, a rhythm that is itself a mixture of colors and associations. The brilliance of winter levels in video games is that they represent a piece of the actual cycle of seasons we live within, and so they produce a significant link between the artificial world of video games we are trying to understand each time we play and the real world we understand better.

Which might just explain what's so great about playing winter levels, if you're into those.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Gunpei Yokoi's Super Wonder Cross! Part 3

When I posted Part 2 of this series about a month ago, I blithely announced that in this post, I would be discussing "what the D-pad means." That's turned out to be kind of a tall order, or a weird thing to try to think about, but I think I was right to put it that way, because that's exactly what this post is about.

When video games became popular in arcades, there was an appeal to them that I think stemmed from two aspects of the experience: the communal and the visceral.

Cabinet versions of Pong were frequent fixtures in bars and restaurants before the concept of a video arcade ever really occurred to anyone; the game's huge success was largely a result of its emphasis on competition between live opponents. The game's minimalism, which I admit was not as hilarious in 1972 as it is now, left lots of cognitive space for players to focus on other tasks, like drinking or talking (see this SNL transcript) or yelling or betting or some other tomfoolery. We see the same thing now with games played over XBox Live Arcade, where the simplicity has been replaced with at least some sophistication, but the competition is enhanced with features like live voice chat (so that humanity can achieve its highest potential, shouting racial epithets at strangers halfway across the country). We may no longer have as many live opponents squaring off in bars, but we do have an analogue. And now we tend to think of home consoles as enabling and perhaps encouraging individual play, but it's true that in its first iterations, the home version of Pong was designed strictly for two players; there was no computer player to be found on those circuit boards.

I think it's fair to say that later on, arcades provided the perfect context for entire genres of games that just don't play as well without a second human player. I'm thinking particularly of beat-em-ups, the games where oversized characters walk through urban settings and hit mohawked individuals with lengths of pipe, and fighting games, where ninjas pull each others' spines out and then hold them up like giant fish. You know these games. They're fun in their way, but anyone who's played much of them at home knows that they are much better in a social context, and presumably they're designed that way.

Even games that were for one player, like Pac-Man, benefited from the presence of an actual arcade cabinet. As Jeremy Parish recently remarked on an episode of Retronauts, a game like Pac-Man is a lot more fun when you're able to play it standing up and leaning into the turns you're having Pac-Man make. The tactile experience of manipulating the joystick not just with your hand but with your whole body was enhanced, again, by the presence of spectators and competitors, particularly as Pac-Man, like most early games, isn't designed with a great deal of variation from level to level. Instead, it has an initial input screen where you can give yourself clever names like SEX and ASS and try to beat your friends' high scores. High scores became almost completely meaningless in single-player home games, which is why Super Mario Bros. still keeps score and, for instance, Super Mario Bros. 2 (the American version) doesn't. Some games, including subsequent SMBs, would continue to keep score into the late 80s and early 90s, but that vestige of the arcade was definitely falling away. There just wasn't as much point to high scores when they couldn't be used as recruiting tools for fresh starfighters.

Though I've seen a lot of players who still treat their game controllers like those arcade joysticks, rocking back and forth with their on-screen movements as if this would help matters; and though a lot of home games, particularly with online connectivity, are multiplayer, the communal and visceral aspects were toned down a bit, if they were not mostly scrapped, for the home experience. I think part of the problem with the second generation of home consoles (which includes things like Atari 2600/VCS, Intellivision, and Colecovision) was that the idea of what a home video game should be wasn't made clear. These systems all relied on input devices that were, and I think I'm justified in saying this categorically, either quite similar to arcade joysticks or basically dysfunctional, so there wasn't an effective dividing line that was drawn between the arcade experience and the home experience. Without much reason to think the home experience was anything different or special, gamers were left to decide for themselves what the difference was. By and large, the difference was better graphics and sound and more interesting gameplay in the arcade, because the second generation was an age of arcade ports and clones. Original games for the home consoles, like Atari's Haunted House or E.T., were often obtuse and strange.

I don't mean to say that the second generation was a dark time; it wasn't. But the third generation, which was led and, for about two years, carried almost exclusively by Nintendo, eventually emphasized a different sort of experience, one that set home gaming apart from arcade gaming in obvious ways. The crucial difference was a move toward a more complete, longer-lasting experience. As I've said, Pac-Man didn't have a real goal that meant anything in terms of gameplay; you could play until the game ran out of memory or numbers to count with (!) on level 256 and restarted itself. Donkey Kong did the same thing on its 117th screen. These were called "kill screens," and they were infamous among knowledgeable players because they were ridiculously hard to reach. The Donkey Kong kill screen is such a difficult goal to reach that there are only (I think) four documented instances of players reaching it, and I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure these four instances are divided between two players. Anyway, it's famous enough to warrant a t-shirt:

When the third generation really kicked in, however, home games began to have obvious goals. Super Mario Bros. had exactly 32 stages, and the game ended conclusively after the 32nd. There wasn't much of a narrative, but Mario began the game with the goal of rescuing the Princess, and he did exactly that in "World" 8-4. The Zelda games, Kid Icarus, Metroid, The Goonies (Japan) and The Goonies II, Castlevania, most of the games people who experienced the third generation associate with it, all had clear endings. The third generation was also the point where a lot of previously computer-based genres jumped to consoles, sometimes with crucial alterations. Adventure games like Maniac Mansion and Shadowgate crossed over from PCs and Macs and became Nintendo games; the RPG genre, previously almost exclusively filled with computer games, became a dominant console genre with ridiculously popular games like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, and it's important to note that the most popular console RPGs focused more on complete narratives with beginnings and endings than on continuous dungeon-crawling.

It's not apparent how that connects to play control, but it does. Just as the new home games shifted to game play meant to last for an hour or more at a time and meant to move, for the most part, towards some final goal, I'd also say they shifted to game play that was more inherently challenging from the get-go. An older game like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong or Space Invaders starts off reasonably easy and gets progressively harder, and while games on the NES also had a learning curve, I'd say they also started at a higher level. From the first moment, a game like Super Mario Bros. required more precise control from the player; just landing a successful hit on the first goomba in the game was a feat far more difficult, I really do think, than anything required of the player in the first level or two of almost any older arcade game. And when the difficulty ratcheted up, it ratcheted up quickly. The term "platformer," which we use to describe the genre to which the Mario games belong, means a game that requires constant precision from the player, because there is a constant need to jump on top of and over obstacles and to avoid holes in the ground. Some levels in Super Mario Bros. present absolutely vertiginous environments, like World 4-3:

I think there's a strong psychological force at work when we play a level like this that makes it more difficult than it should be to navigate the narrow, apparently high platforms that are scattered throughout. Imagine tackling World 4-3 with an Atari 2600 joystick, having to try to stabilize that unwieldy square base with one hand and push the jump button with your thumb while controlling Mario's movements with the other hand via the joystick! I don't know if you've ever played on an Atari 2600, but those joysticks are hard to hold, and it is a constant challenge to keep them from wobbling in your grasp. Not the best thing for Super Mario Bros. A game like Metroid or Kid Icarus, where vertically-scrolling environments are just as common as horizontally-scrolling ones, would probably be even worse. Check out this video of the first world of Kid Icarus if you want to see what I mean. These games just have this precarious feeling to them, and when you're learning the ropes, it's not good to have a controller that's too slippery.

Fortunately, designers at Nintendo had the brilliant idea of adopting the cross-shaped design from the Game & Watch series for the controllers for the new Famicom console.

And two years later, the same design would be incorporated into the NES Control Pad (see picture at top).

These compact blocks were completely stable, since the thumb pressing on the cross pad braced the back of the controller against the player's fingers. Speaking of which, it probably seems unremarkable now, but Nintendo had transferred the work of controlling games from the fingers, used for pressing buttons and grasping the joystick in arcade games, to the thumbs exclusively.

Since the +Control Pad, as it's called in the early NES game manuals, or the D-pad, as we're going to call it, only had four arms, it only provided eight directions of control. This sounds miserly compared to the Intellivision's sixteen directions of control, but the simplicity it provided was far more appropriate to almost all of the games of the 8- and 16-bit eras, most of which called for simple directional commands. Furthermore, it was far easier to tell by feel whether you were pressing left or right as opposed to up-left or down-right than it had been with joysticks. The process of sweeping your thumb across the D-pad to move down rather than up is also swifter and more economical than the process of pulling a joystick downward from the up position; there's also no need ever to adjust your grip on an NES controller the way some people do with joysticks.

This was important for games that required expert timing, and maybe no game demanded that more from a player than Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! (sic). RedHedgehog at Gamespite has done an excellent job of summing up the way it feels to play Punch-Out!!, and as he says, the game is very much a rhythm game. More to the point, by the game's end, the player needs to have an expert sense of rhythm, because Mike Tyson (or, sigh, Mr. Dream) relies on complex and fast (fast!!) movements to traumatize children of the 80s. This is nearly impossible with any controller, but I believe that it would be far more difficult with a joystick than with the quick, compact D-pad.

Finally, I'll return to the longer-format games I mentioned earlier like RPGs and The Legend of Zelda. The best of these games were played during the 8- and 16-bit eras from a top-down perspective, meaning that your character never jumped around like in a platformer; instead, up and down were directions your character could actually travel. These games presented worlds that played out like 2-dimensional maps, with the possibility of movement in a northerly, southerly, easterly, or westerly direction, or anything in between. RPGs tended to use a sort of tiled arrangement where characters moved from invisible square to invisible square on the map, allowing them easily to line up with shopkeepers and villagers for conversation or to negotiate environments; this mechanic worked wonderfully with the grid-friendly D-pad. As in the case of Zelda, some top-down games used a more complex system where the player could move seamlessly to any location on the screen not blocked by trees or rocks. Zelda used this top-down system for exploration and combat, so the player needed to be able to make precise movements in order to line up sword attacks, avoid fireballs, and so on. If you've ever tried to play the original Zelda with an analog stick or a joystick, you may feel as I do that it's far easier to keep Link where you need him with the D-pad than it is with a less precise control device.

In short, the release of the Famicom and later the NES, with their strange new controllers, sent a particular message: video gaming at home was a different thing from video gaming at the arcade. Games were going to be longer, more significant experiences, and they were going to offer a higher degree of challenge than arcade games; stacks of quarters wouldn't do the trick. These would be games that would demand a lot from the player, but the controllers packed with the systems you played these games on would be just the right tool for this new play style. It was a rejection of older, muddle-headed approaches to home video games and an embrace of a totally new mechanic.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Fan Fiction? (An Experiment)

(c) 1955 United Feature Syndicate
Okay, so today's post, or my post for the next few days, whatever this turns out to be, is sort of an experiment. I'm sitting here with my lunch, and in between bites I'm trying to say something interesting and meaningful over the next few minutes. So here goes...

And no, this isn't Super Wonder Cross Part 3. You know what? By Thursday night at 11:59. I'm working on it; there really is something coming together there, and I think it'll be interesting, but I set myself up for a lot of thinking when I said I was going to explain what the D-pad "means," and I intend to fulfill that promise. You can't rush this kind of high-level time-wasting.

Well, really what I want to talk about, in mostly abstract (=vague on account of laziness, hey, and haste) terms is the boundary between canonical and apocryphal. I realized that someone else was on the same wavelength that I was when, earlier this semester, I was reading Michael Chabon's essay collection Maps and Legends, which, yes, I am citing for the second time in two consecutive postings. In the book, in an essay entitled "Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes"...wait. I am a huge fan of the book as object, so let's do this the way Michael Chabon does it. The essay is really titled



I apologize; I know that "center" is obsolete HTML code now, but people, I don't have time to do this properly. We're in a hurry here! Anyway, back to the posting. Chabon asserts that "all literature, highbrow or low, from the Aeneid onward, is fan fiction" (56). I realize that to leave it at that is to do Chabon a bit of a misservice; some readers (okay, okay, my reader, singular...okay, nobody really reads this, sigh) may agree or disagree with that broad statement without really agreeing with Michael Chabon in a significant sense. Okay, whatever; if you like essays, you should go get this book, and then you can decide for yourself if you agree with him or not. If you don't feel a driving urge to go out and read this essay, then probably the fine distinction between what Chabon means and what I'm going to represent his statement as meaning probably won't matter to you. The big thing is, I'd go back further; I think the Iliad and the Odyssey represent what he's calling fan fiction, though probably Chabon hasn't had the exposure to Parry and Lord that I have. I'd even say that probably the Hebrew Bible (=Old Testament, sort of) is kind of like fan fiction, but then I'd be burned at the stake, so I won't say that.

But it wasn't Chabon that sparked this posting. I think really looking back at the history of literature, and tracing, as here, "Western" literature from its earliest extant constituents, shows that fiction, a shocking amount of the time, can't help but be fan fiction. As long as I've been aware that there was mythological material and in fact pre-Homeric oral material that influenced the final Iliad and Odyssey as we have them (if you'll allow me to duck any awkward questions about what those really are), I've been aware that there's a kind of natural impulse in the author to create something that responds to something the author loves. I think that must be the basis for pretty much any creative literature, even historical fiction, probably even, gasp, the biography. Just read Schulz and Peanuts. It's an entertaining book, but is it an accurate picture of Charles Schulz? I really don't think so. Aside from what Schulz's own family think of the book, there's the question of whether or not a theory-based approach to a person's life can possibly yield anything like an accurate picture. It can't; theories are far too simple to encapsulate the nuance and variety of an individual's life, even the most boring individual in history (whoever that might be). David Michaelis seems to think the best way to understand Charles Schulz is to view him as a poor miserable bastard. I assume this comes from a tendentious reading of the Peanuts corpus, one that I can certainly understand, but not one in which I participate. There's much more to Peanuts than melancholy, folks! Anyway, it's not methodologically sound to read the creator solely from the creation.

And yes, I realize I am vastly misrepresenting Schulz and Peanuts. But Michaelis started it.

Oh, yeah, I had a blog going here. Look, the point is really that often when we face an interesting text, or an interesting bunch of stories, or an interesting person, or whatever, we can't help but want to put in our two cents. Occasionally that two cents emerges as fiction, in one sense or another. I was painfully reminded of that this afternoon when I was surfing the internet looking for a text of Avellaneda's Segundo tomo del ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, which happily is available en espanol at es.wikisource.org, when I ran into this old thread on Comic Book Resources which, incidentally, directed me to the same Spanish text of Avellaneda's DQ2 I've just hyperlinked. There's one post in the thread that asks, "Is this the earliest known Fan-fic?"

Two replies try to answer the question, neither to my satisfaction. Both authors implicitly offer definitions of "Fan-fic" that are just too reductive to be particularly useful. I guess this post, which is now at the 45-minute mark (subtracting interruptions to go check on dinner-in-progress in the kitchen), was really just my way belated response. Is it the first fan fic? No, not by a loooong shot. But it is fan fic, and if it's theft, too, well, sometimes that's just the way literature works. To be continued...? Feel free to weigh in on what fan fiction's real relationship to literature is. Is it really just the (sorry) mostly derivative stuff on the internet where Mulder and Scully finally fall in love? Or is it broader than that? Is it all imaginative literature? Can it be art, if we adopt a narrower definition? I think I'll end this thing here...

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Alexandrian Theatre Installment 2: Spaced/Empire Strikes Back

I'm mildly embarrassed to admit it, but my favorite scene in all of film is probably the closing scene from The Empire Strikes Back. ESB is probably also my favorite movie. I understand and acknowledge that it isn't the best movie there is by whatever silly standards there may be of measuring these things, but it is my favorite.

Anyway, the last scene is beautiful. If you haven't seen the movie, please don't let me spoil it for you; get up right now and get a copy and watch it, because you need to see it. You continue reading without having seen at your own risk. But seriously, ESB is 28 years old (28 years old!!); it's not like you have an excuse for not having seen it. So, at the end of the movie, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and the droids are on an observation deck on a Rebel Alliance ship floating along with the rest of the fleet in space, because the rebels don't have a headquarters anymore. Lando and Chewie are out on the Millennium Falcon, getting ready to take off to look for Han Solo, who's just been frozen in carbonite and handed off to Boba Fett for delivery to Jabba the Hutt. Luke's getting an artificial hand installed by a surgical droid, and he and Leia are talking with Lando and Chewie over the radio, exchanging encouraging words about finding Han and getting him back. The Falcon undocks from the capital ship and goes into hyperspace while Luke and Leia watch through the viewport. The end.

Except not. What makes this such a great scene is that it really has to be seen to be appreciated; Irvin Kershner has here directed a scene that plays on the emotions in ways that any other medium wouldn't be able to do. Have a look.

Do you need a tissue? Honestly, maybe you should watch the carbon freeze scene first and then go back and watch the last scene. Now you need that tissue, huh? Or maybe not. You might have spent your childhood bathing in ice, and you could now be numb to the world, I suppose.

For the rest of us, that ending sequence is really great. I think. I honestly used to believe it was just me, because you know, the people I know don't usually go around proclaiming that their favorite scene from a movie is the last scene from Empire Strikes Back. It just doesn't get much play in conversations; it's overshadowed, I guess, by the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke's father.

But a few months ago I was turned on to Spaced when I read somewhere that the series was coming out on DVD in America. Spaced is a Britcom directed by Edgar Wright and written by and starring Simon Pegg (both of Shaun of the Dead fame) and Jessica Hynes (AKA Stephenson), who also had a cameo in Shaun. The series is actually a lot like Scott Pilgrim in that it centers on two slacker-type twenty-somethings. Ordinary twenty-somethings, in other words. It's also like SP because it constantly deploys pop culture references; unlike something like Clerks, which is where people had to turn for their Star Wars references back when I was a kid, Spaced boldly incorporates some references into the plot in bizarre ways. In one episode, for instance, Simon Pegg's character stays up all night playing Resident Evil 2 while hopped up on speed; the next day he experiences zombie-related hallucinations and "rescues" his roommate, neighbor, and landlady from a performance art after-party that's going downhill awfully quickly.

Well, in the next-to-last episode of the entire series, things are in disarray.

Wait, stop. You really shouldn't read the next paragraph down or follow the link in it if you haven't seen Spaced. Go get a copy, Netflix it, something. But if you think you may not see the series at all, I guess you can keep reading. Maybe this will convince you that you are wrong and you must see it. Sigh.

Anyway, there's a dinner out that goes horribly awry, and Simon and Jessica's landlady is convinced that Simon is cheating on Jessica with another woman. He is in fact dating this other woman, but his relationship with Jessica has all along been a pretense, a means of securing a lease and nothing else. The landlady learns all of this, and she is furious and storms off. Things look grim, but the friends are determined to make one last try at appeasing her. And that's where this scene comes in.

Yes! They referenced the ESB ending! This was the point at which I realized, finally, that I wasn't the only one! Other people love this scene too! This was quite a satisfying discovery for me.

***End spoiler :)

See, the reason I'm so fond of ESB is that it is a movie that works as part of a trilogy like no other movie I've seen. Yes, yes, it's the second act, so it's all dark and everything, but I honestly don't think I've seen many movie sequels that have done what ESB does so successfully. It deepens the mythology; it provides context that shades in the characters we care about so much from the first movie. One thing I feel like really successful fiction has to do to be enjoyable is that it has to fabricate a world that's credible. I don't just mean something like Lord of the Rings, which has to build an entire universe from the ground up, but really I'm talking about any fiction. The reader has to believe that there is a world in which these characters are operating and in which their actions make sense.

So when we learn that Han Solo has this buddy who bounces around from shady job to shady job, and when we realize that Han won the Falcon from this guy in a card game, we have some good reasons for believing in this universe. The first Star Wars presented itself as a story about a galaxy with a long history, and a ton of details in the movie supported that. There was a huge gulf between the mostly antiseptic Empire and its pristinely uniformed, British-accented officers and the DIY Rebel Alliance with its lazy American accents (we've all gotten the message, haven't we, that British accents are dignified and American accents are somehow inferior), its old, dirty fleet of fighters, and its closet of used, dinged up flightsuits and helmets. Just look at those helmets the next time you watch Star Wars. Besides looking like they actually belong to real pilots with real personalities, those things have been around the block. But even the Alliance looked classy compared to Han Solo and his "walking carpet" companion!

ESB is in many ways a chance for Leigh Brackett, a writer of hard-boiled detective fiction as well as one member of the Holy Trinity who wrote The Big Sleep, and Lawrence Kasdan, the big softy who also wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, Return of the Jedi, and The Big Chill, to take the dirtiness of this galaxy, the reality of it, and elaborate on that a bit. While a lot ends up happening in ESB, I would say that it often feels as if not much is happening at all. Most of the film's big events are crammed into fairly short sections at the beginning and end of the movie. But what happens in the middle is that our protagonists go in thematically as well as physically opposite directions. Luke heads off to Dagobah for some last minute Jedi lessons from Yoda, and in that sense, he's kind of headed in the brighter direction, the direction of personal enlightenment and growth. Leia, Han, Chewie, and Threepio get stuck just off Hoth when the Falcon decides not to let them jump to hyperspace and rendezvous with the fleet. In the interval, both they and the Empire end up consorting with representatives of the galaxy's criminal element in the hopes of achieving their ends. For Han, Leia, and company, that just means lying low long enough to get the Falcon fixed and then catch up to the rest of the fleet. For the Empire, that means capturing Han Solo to use as bait to catch the real prize, budding Jedi Luke Skywalker.

Why the Emperor's now after Luke, I've never quite figured out. Sure, Vader realizes during the Death Star trench run in Star Wars that this pilot in front of him, whoever he is, is strong in the Force, but how must things have shaken out after that? Because it's a good distance from that sensation to the realization that there's this Skywalker kid out there. Was it that Vader eventually extrapolated from Obi-Wan's presence on the Death Star? But we now know that Vader never realized Natalie Portman survived to have the kids...? Anyway, it's a filmic sleight of hand that happens between the two movies that I can buy into in the moment, but I can't quite figure it out when I'm not watching the movie, though I love to speculate. Any ideas?

Well, the important thing is, we see the Empire dabbling in some realpolitik. Here they collaborate with the galaxy's criminal underbelly, a consortium that must be a significant problem for the Empire, in order to catch Luke, who will presumably then become a powerful bulwark in the Imperial leadership. But think this through a little further, and it becomes really fun. The Empire is basically dealing with the same people who smuggle spice around under their noses, the very same people they were trying to prosecute back when Han Solo had to dump that load of spice at the last minute, the very same people the revenue from that spice was bound for, all in the hopes of catching the bigger fish.

So Leia, Han, et al go off towards the darker end of the galaxy, into the less moral corners. Their quest, and the Empire's quest, is wholly one of convenience; Luke is off doing something spiritually and ideally fulfilling, while everyone else is embroiled in using means they can't really be sure are so safe, and this turns out to be the case for Han, to serve their particular ends.

In the long run, it's the rebels who win, but not without the disaffected criminals who end up throwing in with them. Han deserves at least partial credit for wrecking the first Death Star, to say nothing of his role in the rescue of Princess Leia, and who blows up the second Death Star? Do you remember? Lando effing Calrissian, that's who.

The source material for the first Star Wars is mostly Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, an incredible movie about a general trying to transfer a princess and her devastated kingdom's remaining wealth to safer territory. The princess' success is brought about in part by the intervention of two clueless peasants who are, and I realize I'm fallaciously working backwards here, a cross between the bumbling droids and the self-interested mercenaries Han and Chewie. Just as a side note, I've often suspected that Chewie comes more from the general than from the peasants, just because there was I think a time when Chewbacca was the Ben Kenobi figure, huge and monstrous as well as wise and spiritual, but I could be overreading the general's imposing demeanor. He is played by the awesome and overwhelming Toshiro Mifune.

Anyway, the point is that in Hidden Fortress the two peasants play that sort of mischievous role that's so essential in folklore and mythology (cf. Michael Chabon's introductory essay in Maps and Legends). Sometimes the mischievous peasant (or god or demon or whatever) gets killed horribly or screws up history for all of us (Norse myth), but HF is actually one of the other kinds of trickster story, the one where the tricksters help the good guys in spite of themselves.

ESB, and to a greater extent the first Star Wars trilogy, presents a fictional universe that is so well developed that not only are we told and shown that these fringe elements exist, we are also made to believe they exist. They go about their own lives in the corners of the story, until all of a sudden they become part of the trilogy's momentous events. Which is really what Star Wars and all heroic myths are all about, anyway: the unimportant footnote-type people who grow into huge figures who shape history. That's exactly the way that ESB won my heart: it's almost a gaiden, a side-story, a tale that occurs kind of incidentally in the continuity but doesn't look like it should contribute all that much, but it ends up being sucked into the larger narrative, and this story that seemed not to have so much going for it ends up being a crucial chapter. For me, it's the crucial chapter. God, I love that movie.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Old Games I Hate (1/2)

Hydlide, screenshot from www.consoleclassix.com

I feel a little bad about taking so long in getting "Super Wonder Cross Part 3" up, when I know that at least one person (and probably exactly one person) is waiting for it. Rest assured, I am working on it even now! What's taking so long is, honestly, the process of sorting out what I need to say about the NES' capabilities from what I just want to say about them. Apparently two posts are brewing there. Also, I got distracted thinking about Atari 2600 Pac-Man; post forthcoming. Also, I have a job and a dissertation to write. Hold your horses!

So what I'm doing tonight is a little different. I thought I'd play a game. I've included screenshots from NES games from the first half of the alphabet that I genuinely despise for some reason. Some of them are quite wonderful games, but there are in each case major or minor reasons for my disgust that I just wasn't able to get over as a child. Some of these things I've gotten over in the meantime, and some of them I have not. Anyway, the game is this: can you guess what game any or all of these screenshots come from, working only from the scant clues I've provided? Please list your guesses by number in a comment at the bottom. The games all come from the first half of the alphabet, but they are presented in no particular order. I've borrowed all these screenshots from www.consoleclassix.com. Enjoy (?)

1. I hate this game more than any other. This was one of two games I played as a child that actually seemed to restart my game arbitrarily in the midst of play. Not in the sense you're thinking of! Not in the sense that the title screen came up and that was that, but rather in the sense that my characters zipped right back to the beginning of the game and every last bit of my progress was lost every time I got to a certain point. I was convinced it was an evil cartridge. In retrospect, I'm sure it was some weird timer function that I didn't understand. The reason for THAT is that this game was a rental, and I didn't have access to the instruction booklet.

2. Same issue as with #1. In this case, the game seemed to kill my character for no reason--no contact with enemies or any of the usual things. Again, I'm sure it was a timer thing, but where was the timer?! And where was that instruction booklet when I needed it?

3. I hate this game simply for having the audacity to be released for the NES when it could be experienced in vivid 256 color VGA (!) on a PC. With Soundblaster support. Two years before this version was released. Sorry, NES, this is one game you just weren't meant to play. But your renditions of Ninja Gaiden and Contra are wonderful! Superior to their arcade originals, in fact. So it's okay.

4. This game had a nearly intriguing mechanic built into it that was prominently advertised in its cover art, but in order to enjoy this, and I assure you there was not much enjoyment to be had, you had to suffer through the worst, least imaginative "platforming" experience ever. Worse yet: the already ludicrous gun your character was packing could (and would) run out of bullets, leaving you to swing the stock of the gun pathetically at enemies.

5. Too, too esoteric! What was this game, anyway? A destructive romp or a chess match? I still don't understand it. Another rental; another instruction-less game.

6. Terrible port or terriblest port? Or both? This was awful compared to its four-player (four-player!!!) arcade original.

7. Okay, as someone on Gamespite--hey, don't go over there and cheat!--pointed out, this is, in fact, the best version of this particular game, and that is saying something. The graphics aren't as good, sure, but what's really important here is that, as opposed to the PC original, this game was fully scored with great NES music. It was brilliant. But it's a painful game to have to play through with an NES control pad, as much as I love that little instrument, and it was censored more thoroughly than you might think for its conversion to the NES, as this vintage WIRED article shows. Don't go over to WIRED and cheat, either. Anyway, I hate censorship! Next!

8. I love this game. Love it! It has an interesting and I think basically unprecedented mechanic to it that allows the character to use all sorts of tools. However, I'm going to be horrible and say I hate it simply because the "Lamia"/Medusa at the end of level four was just too difficult for me the one time I rented it as a kid. Haven't been back to it since. My loss, I know.

9. Ugh. Does anything ever happen in this game? Except dying and endless vertical movement? I believe this game is where I got my recurrent nightmares of falling inexplicably from great heights, which have been with me for about twenty years now. Bonus reason for hating it: we were all secretly pronouncing the title incorrectly! Stupid Americans!

10. You know how in Fight Club there's that scene where Brad Pitt asks Edward Norton, "If you could fight anyone, who would you fight?" Then Edward Norton says probably his boss, and Brad Pitt says he'd fight his dad? Well, I'd fight the person who came up with the idea for the balls that drop from the ceiling in level two of this game. Some of them turn into snakes, and some turn into dragons, and others just explode and hit you regardless of where you're standing. I really do love this game, but I don't think I've cleared level two to this day.

And I believe that's it. So guess away, and have fun! I can't wait to see what people come up with; most of these are probably pretty easy, but at least two or three of these are awfully obscure. I think. I hope.