I don’t tend to get a lot of comments on this blog, and what few I do get always seem to fall into the same genre. If I were being generous, I’d say the commentor is making a genuine attempt to engage with what I’m arguing but doesn’t entirely know how to go about it. They’ll comment that what I’ve written isn’t relevant to what the game actually is. The game is only as it appears at the surface. Only the game has the power to define itself, and as players, our role is to accept that definition at face value. Other comments are much less lenient, showing no actual interest in engaging with what I’m saying to assert that video games are a medium designed for our enjoyment and nothing else, so there’s no point in examining things at the level of detail that I do. In both cases, though, there is the assumption that games are primarly objects from which we extract fun.
Wandering out to the peripheries of the PlayStation library, one finds a number of established artists working on the system: Hiroshi Nagai on Kaze no NOTAM, Tetsuya Komuro on Gaball Screen, Planet DOB and the semi-eponymous band, to a lesser extent Fantastic Plastic Machine and Suzuki Bakuhatsu, etc. As artistic projects, these games rarely wander far from their artists’ sensibilities. Because those artists had already established themselves with years (in some cases decades) of prior work, they’d possessed a comprehensive understanding of their aesthetic projects and so envisioned their games as just another extension of that. However, that fact alone lends these games considerable historical value. Their mere existence connects video games to contemporary art scenes and challenges the idea that video games could or should sequester themselves from the outside world. And by largely ignoring the conventions associated with commercial video games, the content of these projects only reinforces that notion.
Even a cursory understanding of Iblard: Laputa no Kaeru Machi would be enough to situate the game alongside these other works. Based on Ghibli animator Naohisa Inoue’s fantasy world, his enthusiasm for that world means the game never wanders that far from the source material. At the same time, though, its conservatism highlights an interesting point regarding art video games like these. No matter what the source material may have been, those games made themselves understood as interactive media, demanding a certain amount of interpretation to figure out how to relate that game to the larger project. And reluctant though it may be, Iblard must still modify its fantasy world to meet this new medium’s demands. Through Iblard, we see not only the limitations and compromises that adaptation entails, but the new opportunities to elaborate and expand on one’s vision that it also opens up.
There’s a kind of cliche in media criticism where some pieces of media simply aren’t for critics. The point is most often put forth by creators of that media in response to negative criticism. It is both anti-intellectual and populist in nature, appealing directly to the common man as opposed to those stuffy critics who, in their almost leisurely scholasticism, are supposedly divorced from the actual act of living. It’s a non-response; a brazen attempt to dictate the terms on which we engage media and to opt out of any honest engagement with it. Unsurprisingly, it is very easy to dismiss this form of “media that isn’t for critics.”
Yet there is another form to this argument; one that, while rarely acknowledged, is significantly harder to dismiss. To make a piece of media available to critics is to subject that media to whatever prevailing standards dominate its environment. For video games, this generally means making one’s entire being available for consumption. Whether because a game doesn’t fit this standard (E.G. games with a personal focus) or because it seeks to directly challenge that logic, in asserting that a game isn’t for critics, one is saying that market value is not the only a game is capable of possessing. It’s a claim that, as players and critics, we are obligated to take seriously, if only because of the many questions that claim presents: who should and shouldn’t play this game, whose experiences this game represents, what will that play look like, etc.
If we can characterize the present era as postmodern in character, then we can also characterize it as replete with criticisms of the postmodernist movement itself. The most recent wave of criticism (IE from after the United States’ latest presidential election) is perhaps the easiest to explain: nothing more than a conservative backlash meant to criticize youth for not following traditions (regardless of whether or not those traditions ever really had a place for them). However, focusing on this as the only or even main source of postmodern critique belies not only the history behind postmodernism’s criticisms, but also much of the substance those criticisms originally possessed. If postmodernism is the major cultural system of the present era, then it must have established itself by supplanting the previous one: modernism. Where modernism posits multiple paths to a single more-or-less universal state of being (the modernity in question), postmodernism complicates the idea of there being any such state of being. It problematizes the possibility of addressing the issues that define our modern world – but those issues still remain. The frustration people feel toward postmodernism, then, becomes much more understandable.
It is this lens that best explains my own frustrations with Suzuki Bakuhatsu. The game is a clear product of postmodern thought, not only because it was released in a postmodern era (the late 90s/early 2000s especially, when postmodernism dominated popular entertainment) but also because it vividly reflects postmodern thought in its design. The way Suzuki Bakuhatsu blends various mediums is reminiscent of postmodernism’s ideas about the multiplicity of perspective, and its emphasis on style and affect wouldn’t feel out of place in Simulacra and Simulation. This last statement especially says more about the game than it initially appears to. In embracing postmodern thought, Suzuki Bakuhatsu seems to embrace mostly its more nihilistic aspects. It abandons the pursuit of meaning, seeing that pursuit as itself inherently meaningless, and embraces as its only reality the style and flair we see it perform at the surface. As enticing as that surface may be, the rewards to be found beneath are limited at best.
In my own work, I often tend to avoid centering a game’s authorial intent. This isn’t to say that intent is useless. In a lot of cases, it can prove quite informative. Yet in many other cases, it can prove unnecessarily limiting, whether because the intent is relatively basic (and thus not particularly conducive to good analysis) or because the creators themselves fail to understand what makes their work compelling. Indeed, some of the most interesting readings on games work outside the scope of what its creators directly wrote into the game.
By contrast, some games demand that we understand them only on their terms, regardless of how uninteresting those terms prove to be. Low G Man: The Low Gravity Man is unfortunately the latter type. Although the game affords a surprising variety of ways to critically approach it, in the end, its only desire is to entertain. This desire is so strong as to cloud out our previous variety, ensuring it either leads nowhere or ends in contradictions. At the same time, however, this is not a desire Low G Man is prepared to fulfill. Its strict position on how players are to approach it can only point to the ambivalence that holds it back.
At least as far as mainstream video game discourse is concerned, the Atari 2600 era is a forgotten period for video games. (It’s worth mentioning that this is the first Atari 2600 game I’ve written about here.) This is mostly a result of what followed it: not only did games for later systems do more to shape commercial video game styles, but the larger historical trend of technological progressivism would soon eclipse the imagination-based aesthetic that gave the system its identity. What makes this turn of events lamentable is that it is precisely this level of difference from the present that makes the Atari 2600 era so distinctive and valuable in the first place. Games at this time weren’t as much a test of skill meant to verify the player’s worth (as they would become much later), but works concerned with novelty, affect, and a holistic play experience above all else. This approach afforded them a degree of creative freedom that later, more technologically advanced video games couldn’t as neatly account for.
The irony to framing Dragonstomper like this is that it contradicts contemporary conceptions of the game. At the time, it would have been understood as one of the more technically advanced Atari 2600 games. Requiring a cassette-player add-on that increased the system’s RAM almost fifty times, Dragonstomper demonstrates a breadth and complexity that its peers couldn’t hope to match. At the same time, it presents all that breadth and complexity through all the same sensibilities as its peers, and thus reflects them just as strongly. This puts the game in a bit of an ambiguous position, being defined both by the limitations it faces and how it chooses to overcome them. In any case, it is through both that Dragonstomper speaks to the expressive potential that games of this era possessed.
Ever since the Industrial Revolution, humanity’s relationship with technology (and therefore a modern age defined by it) has been fraught with ambivalence. Because it is the product of human labor, it speaks to humanity’s power to change its world, often for the better. I specify “often” because as developments like chemical and nuclear warfare can attest, technology can also reflect humanity’s horrifying potential to inflict senseless destruction. Moreover, this was the first time technology could be understood not just as a means of extending human labor, but as an allegory for the larger powers perpetuating inequality to enrich themselves. Technology could terrify not only through its destructive power, but also through its existence reminding us that we are forced to live in a world of another’s making.
These are the issues that weigh the most heavily on Night Striker S’s mind. (Note: from this point on, I will refer to this game only by its original name of Night Striker. The differences between it and the Saturn re-release are too minor to note.) In many ways, Night Striker has no choice but to respond to these issues. It is a product of modernity. Not only is it a video game – something occupying a nebulous space between human expression, technological development and commodity – but it is a video game released in 1989 for the arcades, that 20th century onslaught of lights and noises demanding that you sacrifice yourself to one of the various machines.
By now, my approach to writing about platformers should be well understood by anybody reading this. They are driven not so much by play as they are by narrative; more specifically, their protagonists and how the game itself responds to the hero myth its form lends itself so well to. As narrow as this focus may sound, it’s proven very flexible from a historical perspective and thus lends itself very well to artistic interpretation. All the more disappointing, then, that The Adventure of Little Ralph adds so little to our understanding of the platformer genre. Despite being more poised than many of its peers to engage with the genre’s inner workings, its Runbow-esque approach to that genre all but denies it the opportunity. The result is a game that, while technically proficient in the narrowest sense, offers us little in the way of real depth.
One of the themes with my writing has been to unearth the ideas that games express in their design without realizing. I approach this task on a game by game basis because by limiting ourselves to this scale, we can show how a given video game responds to the trends of its day and illustrate what those trends are/were capable of. That being said, it can also be helpful to apply this to the wider world of video games. Looking at the games that are the most readily commercially available, one finds that they tend to speak a common language: one focused on heavily structured behavior, absolute control (whether bodily or mental; often both), exhibition of skill, and promises of personal empowerment to make the rest enticing.
Consider this an addendum to the Hardcore Gaming 101 article on Hiza no Ue no Partner: Kitty on your Lap. More specifically, this will dissect that which constitutes the game’s core: its refutation of meaning in the pursuit of aesthetic. Just because Kitty on your Lap refutes the construction of meaning doesn’t mean it successfully opts out of that process. For as much as it wishes to be a pure symbol with no real world equivalent, to become that symbol would prevent the general audience it courts from relating to it, contradicting its own purpose. The game must ground its anime tropes in a reality the player can recognize, commenting on that reality in the process. All the earlier refutation does is ensure the game will mirror the thoughts in the larger culture around it while preventing the game from recognizing those thoughts, much less engaging with them in a meaningful way.