As I write this, my mind is fixated on the link between technique (the tools and methods responsible for a creative work’s production) and aesthetics. The two are often seen as strongly linked, as though a given aesthetic naturally flows from a given technique, or like that technique strictly dictates the possible range of aesthetics that can be rendered through it. It’s an easily dispelled illusion, but one that we maintain anyway because it provides us a meaningful vocabulary (one which we can negate if it circumstances deem it necessary) through which we might articulate our understanding of a given work. The art world developed this language over several centuries with concepts like oil paintings and watercolor, and in video games, this trend is mostly easily seen in regard to specific engines, like RPGMaker, Ren’py, or Unity; or with aesthetic styles like retroism and literalism/hyperrealism.
However, we need not be so broad with our analysis. Consider the pseudo-3D technique that Pole Position introduced in 1982. Prior to this, the action in racing games was presented to players from a top down perspective. Not only did this perspective distance players from the action, as though they were driving their vehicles by remote control, but it reinforced the game’s status as a toy to be played with.
Pole Position sought to change that. It introduced perspective to racing games, trading in the static and completely visible maps of its peers for tracks that change dynamically as one races toward a far off vanishing point. And with this change came a change in how the action was conceptualized. The events depicted on screen are no longer an imaginary play activity, Pole Position argues, but something with a tangible existence that the player directly experiences. This is especially the case if the player is playing in the arcade cabinet, made to close out the outside world and feel like a real race car for better verisimilitude.
Truth be told, there are holes in the game’s reasoning. The player can never directly experience the action, for one. The fundamental split between the two has only been obscured, meaning the player must use their imagination to achieve what the game never can. Besides this, the perspective technique is, to a certain extent, self-defeating: it aims to reach its goal of a tangible world through something as ephemeral as movement. However, these issues never stood in the way of the technique’s popularity or even its working assumptions. Racing games like Outrun, Mach Rider, Rad Racer, etc. all expanded on Pole Position’s work while still being heavily grounded in its sense of physical space (albeit a very abbreviated one).
Shooters, by contrast, have always been more amenable to abstract imagery, so they treated the introduction of perspective differently. Not only did they directly confront those issues that racing games chose to ignore, but they were keenly interested in what it is those issues implied. In fact, shooters would often base their aesthetic around whatever answers they happened to dig up. Space Harrier is the most notable example, using its pseudo-3D landscape to construct what can only be called an interactive album cover. 3D World Runner is also worth mentioning, although its spatial logic imposes certain limitations other games of its kind don’t encounter.
Most intriguing and most direct of all is Attack Animal Gakuen. Released two years after Space Harrier introduced perspective to the world of shooters, Attack Animal Gakuen doesn’t wander far, mechanically speaking, from the blueprint Space Harrier first laid out. The player character (a schoolgirl named Nokko) hurdles forward through the world of her own volition. The player’s responsibility is to pilot her up, down, left, and right to dodge the onslaught of constantly advancing obstacles and animals. Nokko can also shoot back at the animals, although it’s difficult to tell what this contributes to the game. It’s often much easier to dodge something than it is to shoot it, rendering conflict unnecessary to the experience.
Likening Attack Animal Gakuen to a shooting gallery also falls short, as its primary activity is visual in nature. Like Space Harrier, the game derives most of its structure and meaning from the ever-scrolling background beneath Nokko’s feat. At the same time, Attack Animal Gakuen faces technical constraints that Space Harrier never did (console ports excluded). NES hardware couldn’t render environments with the same depth of field as contemporary arcade technology could, so rather than even attempt such a feat, Attack Animal Gakuen applies a minimalist solution to the problem, including only that which it needs to convey a moving world: a single track flanked on both sides by fields stretching off the screen.
This strategy certainly achieves its intended effect, but it also reveals fissure and inconsistencies in the world that come to define the entire experience. The most obvious of these (and thus the easiest to overlook) is how smooth the world is. The aforementioned technical limitations force onto Attack Animal Gakuen’s world a uniformity that one would never find in reality: bumps in the landscape are implied only on rare occasions, and texture is completely non-existent. In addition, the game’s minimalist stance happens to preclude basic spatial relationships, leading to a surreal rewriting of the basic laws of physics. There can be no doubt that I perceive movement, but how is it that I perceive that movement independent of the physical space through which it should be made intelligible to me at all? The world feels an empty void where everything blends together. Distinction becomes meaningless, and indeterminacy comes to characterize that world as a result.
These trends only become stronger as the game’s design begins to take notice of them, either exaggerating ambiguity or using it for creative effect. A change of color, the game reasons, is equal to a change of substance; the floor can function as both ground and ocean depending on the game’s whims. At the same time, the repetition of motifs – lines of Buddhist statues, naval mine-like enemies to be shot down in near every level – undermine one’s sense of progress by suggesting the game’s six levels are merely different representations of the same space. Far from communicating to me a tangible world with a definite existence, the game instead functions more as a simulation of physical space that actively signals toward its own artificiality. Above all else, the game’s key achievement is to undermine whatever relationship I construct with the space provided for me.
As intriguing an experiment as Attack Animal Gakuen may be, figuring out what further effect all of this has on the game proves difficult. There’s definitely the increased difficult to consider. Play requires that I judge my relationship with the space around me, but as we’ve just discussed, the game destabilizes that relationship. Judging where I needed to be to shoot a given animal was all but impossible, and half the time I clumsily slammed into objects whose distance from Nokko I was unable to determine. Needless to say my experience with the game was confusing and disorienting because of this.
I can’t help but feel the objects’ visual design matches this. Ravens fly over fields of lava. Kangaroos bounce across the clouds. And the Buddhist statues; no matter the location, always the same line of Buddhist statues. One struggles to find any semantic relationship within a given set of images, and discerning emotional character (IE whether one is meant to read this lack as humorous) proves equally enigmatic. Looked at this way, one could regard Attack Animal Gakuen as a strange unity of form and function, the constant cognitive assault of images to sort out matching the physical assault of objects to avoid. That would make the game conceptually interesting if still understandably frustrating to experience first-hand.
However, I’m not certain this is the right approach to the game. It wouldn’t make sense to say that Attack Animal Gakuen operates only on the level of bare facticity, because even if it only lightly suggests its structure, there’s still a structure holding the game together. But where might one find it? In the one constant amid the flux: not individual images, but their arrangements and their repetition. When one puts aside for a moment those aspects of the game directly informed by its technical constraints, they find not a senseless clutter of objects, but clear compositions designed according to a deliberate intent. What that intent may be isn’t hard to discern, either. The premeditated, almost musical placement and movement pattern of enemies suggests something similar to other shooters on the game development scene.
Yet something causes the game to deviate from its peers. Whether it’s the shift in how we view the action, the aforementioned lack of clear semantic relations, or something inherent in the game’s choice of arrangements, something about the game lends it a dreamlike quality one wouldn’t find in many other shooters. As far as Attack Animal Gakuen is concerned, this is probably the best it could hope for in terms of a larger framework. For the game, framing the action as part of a dream provides it some coherence without having to give up its spontaneous play of imagery and setting. And for the player, this framing invites their interpretation if only to sort out what exactly the game’s various symbols could possibly mean. In theory that should enrich the player’s experience by providing them something to access beyond what the immediate action can provide.
In practice, though, the dream framing could just as easily suggest further insufficiencies on the game’s part. Narratively speaking, the seemingly senseless and flightful arrangement of imagery is but one part of what makes dreams function, and maybe not even the most significant part. What lends dreams their interpretative allure, the mystery they tempt us into solving, is the belief that they reference prior real world experiences. To Attack Animal Gakuen’s credit, there at least appear to be real world events driving the action, both within the fiction and outside it (Nokko’s animations were rotoscoped). But where does knowing any of this take us? What could a mob of flying kangaroos symbolize? What do I make of Nokko shooting down sharks as they dive up from the desert sand? Or her flying through the dark woods?
I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t any answers to these questions. Whatever experiences the game could be referencing, it’s not immediately clear from playing the game. They’re most likely related to Nokko’s school life, but beyond that, it’s hard to discern anything. We know too little about the protagonist, cypher that she is, and many of the environments are not in themselves emotionally coded in such a way that they point to anything more significant. Attack Animal Gakuen derives most of its meaning from how it plays with the visual, not from any mood the game might lend it. In the end, it remains unclear to what extent, if any, Attack Animal Gakuen engages with this dream motif.
I want to return to what I said earlier about the problems concerning Pole Position’s method. In the decades following its release, these problems haven’t gone away. If anything, the game industry’s recurring pursuit of realism has only made those concerns that much more applicable. Yet we need not dismiss the methods developers employ in the name of that pursuit. By calling into question contemporary racing games’ claims to realism and by furthering the imaginative work of its peers in the realm of shooters, Attack Animal Gakuen demonstrates how flexible a single technique can be when in the right hands. Furthermore, the game does this with only one technique. When one considers how many are deployed to make games now, it’s hard to keep one’s mind from turning to the creative potential waiting to be realized, either by developers in creating their games or by players in responding to them.