Human Entertainment isn’t a name a lot of people know, although they’d certainly be familiar with their creative output. Taking a brief glance at all the games they made reveals a spotty record: they were fond of experimental diorama games (SOS, the Twilight Syndrome games, and most notably of all Clock Tower), but just as many of their games never stray far from their clearly announced genre expectations. In addition, the quality of any given Human Entertainment work is just as various as the kinds of games they worked in.
It should go without saying that Android Assault: The Revenge of Bari-Arm falls into the latter of those two categories. The game shares a lot of important motifs with the Silpheeds and Rendering Ranger R2s and Ranger Xs and Spriggan Powereds of the day: all action-oriented shooters (often modeled after or explicitly based on some popular mech anime) boasting what game technology at the time was capable of. Where Android Assault distinguishes itself is in the sheer emptiness of its own experience. It embodies emptiness; communicates nothing but it. At the surface, the game searches for a direction it will never find, and beneath the surface, it makes itself a non-being through which the player might forget their own emptiness.
As profound as this makes Android Assault appear, the game is incredibly straightforward as far as side scrolling shooters go. You pilot a machine that can flip between being a fighter jet and a mech (not in the Gundam sense, mind you; the mech is just an extra hit point a la Ghosts ‘n Goblins). What you’re expected to do with this pinnacle of scientific achievement – indeed, the only thing you can do with it – is shoot down a clean procession of enemies and collect various weapons and upgrades to assist you in carrying out that goal. Any reasons you (or rather, the pilot you’re controlling) may have for doing these things aren’t as important as the fact that you’re doing those things at all. This isn’t to say the game lacks a story to explain the events that unfold on screen. In fact, that story is the first thing we see upon starting the game: a futuristic military nation/colony goes to war with a peaceful Earth, forcing the latter to respond with their superweapon, the titular Bari-Arm.
However, this story is by no means important to understanding the game. (The fact that both Android Assault and Silpheed borrowed this story from the same source should be enough of an indication.) Indeed, to assume this were the case would be to assume that narrative provides me my motivation for playing the game, which is far from what’s going on here. I don’t play the game to fulfill its narrative. From the beginning, it’s clear that I play that the game might affirm my own worth, a worth that by definition I can’t affirm myself.
To illustrate this, I turn to game critic Brendan Vance and his piece “The Abject Emptiness of Everything.” It’s a piece I feel I’ll be returning to a lot over the course of my play experiences, for several reasons. Where Vance reads emptiness of symptomatic of the modern open world game, I see a much broader picture; one that’s rooted in a video game culture that’s been cultivated for decades. That point deserves its own article and I wish to return to it at a future time. Right now, it’s enough to agree with him that whatever we’re talking about is fundamentally empty.
Where we disagree is in the causes. Although he recognizes that the player has some role to fulfill in all this, he ultimately focuses on the worlds they choose to inhabit and the role those worlds play. For him, open world games boil down to agreeing to whatever Symbolic order the game forces us into and in doing so, mitigating the various threats the Real poses to us (the emptiness, the humbling sense of scale, etc.). Or as he puts it, “By investing many hours of our labour, we sew shut the bursting seams of eternity! What better way to relieve ourselves of boredom?” He makes what the player does in these games sound like meaningless busywork; like the nothingness we should focus on is the nothingness the game communicates rather than what the player brings to it. This isn’t a minor rhetorical change, either. Looking at games this way suggests that a player losing themselves in the grind of play is incidental to why they play rather than the very reason they pick up the controller in the first place.
To fix this, we just have to locate that nothingness not in the world that players explore, but within the player themselves. This kind of nothingness is an inadequacy I feel deep in my being; a desire for somebody to affirm my worth as an individual. As I said before, this isn’t something I can just give to myself, but it is something the game can give to me. There are many strategies by which a game can give me that affirmation: by building a world where my actions leave a distinct impact on it,; by extending my being beyond what my physical body is capable of; by giving me a community of people who will never reject me (or whose rejection can be mathematically controlled and thus avoided). In short, games offer a space in which players may simultaneously confront and forget their own emptiness by exerting control over a virtual Other.
At the very least, this is what Android Assault does. Not only is it willing to grant me my affirmation, but it’s perfectly equipped to do so. For example, my authority over the game is never challenged. Enemies never overwhelm the space before me; they never force me into a reactionary position where their presence, not mine, defines the world. With the screen utterly empty of life for a significant chunk of the experience, I am free to do with the world as I please. More than that, I’m what fills the game with life and being. Yet this puts the game in an uneasy sort of duality. On the one hand, it’s my presence dominating the world and lending it meaning. I fill the screen with a cacophony of lasers/bullets/missiles/etc. and as the largest and most distinctive object on screen, I become the center of the game’s universe.
The unfortunate irony is that for this to be true, the game has to make itself a non-presence, reducing itself to a nothing that exists only to put me at the center of its universe. Stumbling upon this revelation inevitably exhausts the game’s affirmation of whatever meaning it might have had. It’s a careful balancing act, giving the player what they want without letting them know the conditions under which it’s given, and it’s one that this game unfortunately can’t maintain. Android Assault is just too unwilling to contradict the complete control I have over its environment.
This isn’t to say the game is completely unwilling to contradict it. The few fights against biomechanical Others throughout the game are the highlight of the whole experience. This is especially true of the final boss, whose hulking figure envelops (and therefore controls) the whole screen. It’s a tense, claustrophobic, and all too rare moment for this Human Entertainment shooter.
Some of you may object that because I haven’t analyzed the game on its terms, any critique I’ve rendered until now doesn’t apply to Android Assault. It’s not an argument I’d agree with, but even assuming I did accept the game’s terms, it wouldn’t do much better than it has now. The problem is the game can’t decide what it wants to be, even it it looks like it comfortably slots into its genre of choice. This isn’t like Rollergames, where I couldn’t pin down what the game was. I understand what this game is, even if it doesn’t. The involved shooting action and the sometimes excessively busy visuals blend into an indistinguishable and chaotic soup, but the music tells me that to relax amid all this carnage. And while the game has interesting ideas on offer, like charging your weapons or the aforementioned biomechanical Others, those ideas only scratch the surface, leaving the larger surrounding structures untouched.
The product of all this is a bundle of contradictions to no apparent end; design choices with no clear direction; and in front of all that, a lack of thought beyond one’s appreciation for a given body of work and a desire to contribute something of one’s own to it. This isn’t to say that genre fiction (the game equivalent of it, I mean) is creatively bankrupt. In fact, I have no trouble saying the list of games I provided at the beginning of this article are the stronger highlights of the shooter genre. (Rendering Ranger R2 is a possible exception, as I’ve never beaten it.)
Where did these games succeed where this one didn’t? For lack of a better word, these games have a vision. That vision is clear enough to recognize what it is and focused enough to direct every facet of the game, making sure everything achieves whatever specific effect the developers ask of themselves. As obvious as it sounds, this is something that Android Assault can’t quite muster. It becomes the very emptiness that it hopes to combat.