Macross: Do You Remember Love

If you hope to understand Japanese pop culture, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll come across Macross sooner or later. Although it didn’t introduce the narrative and aesthetic conventions that have come to define that culture (Gundam and Yamato both precede it), Macross was instrumental in codifying those conventions and making them into what we recognize today. On the one hand, it admires all the possibilities that technological advancement opens up and is eager to celebrate them whenever it finds the slightest opportunity. The intricate transformation sequences, Ming-Mei’s elaborate pop-idol performances – one can easily feel the unbridled enthusiasm that bursts out of these images. At times, that enthusiasm can be so strong that the image alone is enough to satisfy Macross. This lends the work a certain hollow quality, even if it’s still aesthetically pleasing.

On the other hand, though, one can attribute Macross’ success not to its aesthetic accomplishments, but to its ability to speak to the cultural zeitgeist. The work is full of allegorical connections to contemporary Japan’s post-war dilemma, and its these connections that give the work its substance. There’s the obvious fact that Ming-Mei’s concerts take place against the backdrop of a galactic war. The joy her music brings is born from the suffering that war inflicts, Macross argues, meaning the two are fundamentally inseparable. In addition, narrative elements like the search for protoculture and the characters’ journey into the world of adults allow the work to confront the existential dread of losing and attempting to reclaim one’s original essence. None of this changes how sentimental the work can be at times, but there’s something comforting in the answers it arrives at; hence its popularity and canonicity.

PSOGL2_079No matter the interpretation, the above context is absolutely necessary to understanding Macross: Do You Remember Love. This being a 1999 video game adaptation of the 1984 film of the same name, Do You Remember Love refutes most other analytic approaches. Scarab, the company responsible for its production, only made a few games in its lifetime, none of them enough to establish a clear ethos. In fact, it’s very likely that they were a creative-for-hire company like Red and Tose. Even putting aside the circumstances of its creation, Do You Remember Love clearly states it intent to faithfully recreate the Macross story, and it never wanders far from that goal. The events of its narrative remain unchanged, as do the themes it explores through them: technological fetishism, the concerns about the fate of mankind, etc.

Analyzing it as a game doesn’t provide anything interesting, either; largely because the game itself isn’t terribly interested in presenting itself as such. It’s a sidescrolling shooter à la Gradius in which you pilot a VF-1 Valkyrie and shoot down targets with your various weapons: a standard machine gun, a semi-infinite supply of missiles that lock onto enemy targets, and a limited supply of bombs to attack multiple enemies in a given area. Unlike Gradius, though, Do You Remember Love takes its verisimilitude goal to such an extreme that traditional video game aesthetics become irrelevant to it. Challenge clearly doesn’t apply to this game, for example. Its scenarios are too relaxed to demand much of anything from the player. And its systems are too bare, too mundane to produce the sort of interlocking depth that encourages players to gain mastery over the game.

In fact, Do You Remember Love is downright apathetic to the player and their navigation of its scenarios. I fly through levels (more accurately, I watch myself fly through them), waiting for enemies to present themselves so they can fill the game with activity. I paint them like I would in other games, but the movement is too loose and unorganized for it to mean much of anything. Of course, what I say only applies to those moments of play with activity in them – much of the game involves little to no action on my part. I say this not to criticize Do You Remember Love, but to better frame our discussion of it. Consider the earlier phrase “little to no action on my part.” I chose this wording not to suggest that the game completely lacks action (it has no such lack), but to indicate that the player isn’t the driving force behind what action there is. This is the kind of game that values skillful play – exhibitions of the player’s mastery over arbitrary challenges – less than the scenarios is constructs and our experience of them.

PSOGL2_045To that end, Do You Remember Love maintains incredibly strict control over that experience. Every event, every musical cue, every aircraft movement (enemy or otherwise) is planned down to the last detail, and not once is the player given even the slightest opportunity to interrupt the game’s careful machinations. Taken purely in terms of aesthetic effect, the game at least somewhat achieves its goal. I’ll go into greater detail regarding the game’s problems later. For now, we need only appreciate that the game feels like Macross, from its thoroughly optimistic tone to the overpoweringly majestic musical movements.

As commendable as these achievements may be, they belie a far more interesting effect on the genre the game inhabits. To even consider translating the Macross story into video game form (at least as this game interprets translation), Do You Remember Love has to reconceptualize how shooters work: away from previous models and toward something more akin to a theatrical production. I don’t mean this purely in the sense that the game is more interested in conveying narrative than its peers might be; I also mean that this shift entails a fundamental change in how the player relates to the action at all. Some of that chance is admittedly thorny to work out from a theoretical standpoint. Do I, the player, more directly experience that narrative because I’m directly embedded in it? Or am I distanced from it; always separate from the narrative and aesthetics that constantly surround me? I don’t have any definitive answers to these questions. The game isn’t keen on providing such answers (or even acknowledging that the questions exist), and elements from both perspectives feel simultaneously true.

What I can say for certain is that because of the theatrical framing, narrative becomes a sort of super-category to which all other forces in the game are subject. It’s this force which comes to define the play experience, and it’s this force that opens up creative opportunities the game wouldn’t have otherwise known. As far as myself, enemies, and NPCs are concerned, there’s an ontologically flattening effect where I begin to perceive all these parties as actors performing their roles on the stage. This lends proceedings an unusually personal feeling, one that Do You Remember Love is quick to put to use. The feeling of camaraderie as your allies casually banter and attend to their own tasks somewhere else in the battlefield, the sense that real Zentradi soldiers are consciously targeting you as enemies bear down on you, the iconic scene that brings the war to a close – it’s hard to imagine how the game could replicate these moments under different conditions.

PSOGL2_073By contrast, this narrative super-category has a much different effect on the mechanics of play. Devoid of the typical encouragements to interact with the game more skillfully or in greater depth, I begin to perceive those mechanics more for their ability to communicate narrative. Again, Do You Remember Love is quick to capitalize on this, which would explain why you see this transformation throughout so many of the game’s features.

The best example of this trend is probably the SDF counter. From what I’ve read and experienced, the counter functions as a shot accuracy measurement: for each missed enemy, the counter drops down by some amount from 100. It’s easy, almost inevitable, for enemies to slip outside your range before you can damage them, especially if you haphazardly spray bullets with your machine gun. Do You Remember Love encourages a more measured approach like locking onto targets with your missiles. In doing so, the game creates distinct narrative beats which contribute to the overall cinematic feeling. Later modifications to the SDF counter further amplify that feeling while specifying its meaning: a quickly decreasing counter signifying destruction or a losing battle, a blank counter indicating a non-official excursion in the VF-1 Valkyrie, etc. Admittedly, these effects are all fairly simple, but they serve the game’s needs well enough and lend it much-appreciated richness and texture.

That being said, so far we’ve only discussed how the game structures its narrative, and not the narrative it ends up conveying. Part of why I’ve yet to discuss the latter is because we already know what narrative it hopes to convey: that of the movie it’s based on. Yet Do You Remember Love can never tell the exact same story as the 1984 film. To do so would be to defeat the purpose of adapting Macross into video game form. The game must make alterations. Meanings are abbreviated and therefore altered significantly. The intergalactic conflict and the celebration of spectacle that once served as an escape from that conflict are now combined into a single being.

PSOGL2_016If the game’s reinterpretation of generic convention is its greatest accomplishment, then its reinterpretation of its own source material may well be its greatest failing. In marrying together war and spectacle, Do You Remember Love loses key components of what makes Macross work. The latter’s focus was never on the conflict itself, but on how the cast reacted to it: trying to understand that conflict, finding their place in it, wondering if they would ever come out on the other side of that conflict and find the part of themselves that would make them whole. Macross thrives on the interaction between the personal and the (for lack of a better word) cosmic spheres, meaning those spheres must remain separate for that all-meaningful interaction to exist. Otherwise, one ultimately dominates and the aesthetic escape loses all of its substance.

It’s not hard to imagine a design approach that would have afforded Do You Remember Love a similar degree of polysemy. Combat moments would still be conveyed in the same manner, but humanistic plot beats would be portrayed directly through character dialogue à la contemporary visual novels. A literalist interpretation, yes, but one that would have done the job, and one that certainly would have been available to the game’s developers, considering that Sakura Taisen introduced the general concept three years earlier.

Obviously this isn’t the choice Do You Remember Love makes, and the choice it does end up making speaks a lot to its priorities. Anything even remotely humanistic in Macross – Ming-Mei’s relationship with Hikaru, Hikaru and Misa’s brief attempt to live a “normal” life on Earth – is either portrayed via cinematics or blandly summarized to the player. Human relationships are something I bear witness to; the war something I participate in myself. What’s clear is that Do You Remember Love consistently privileges the more overtly flashy moments that both suit it as a shooter and are more likely to leave an impact. In a way the game gets exactly what it wants. The extent to which the game plans out these plot beats all but ensures that any player will remember them.

PSOGL2_029Still, I’m left wondering what value there is in remembering those plot beats, and what impact the game is meant to have through them. Construing spectacle as an end in itself would work fine in any other context, but by virtue of what this game references, something more nuanced is required, if only to better align the game with Macross. Unfortunately I fail to see that nuance here. Do You Remember Love does little if anything to encourage introspection on the player’s part, instead presenting them only the barest facts with minimal connections between them. This is clearest at the game’s inception: we find ourselves already in a war and without important information like who the combatants are, the cause of that war, etc. War is presented as a brute fact of reality the player must accept. For as impressive as the following imagery may be, it’s also surprisingly empty of any greater meaning. And unlike Macross, that emptiness cannot itself become a meaning for the game to engage with, whether due to inability to unwillingness.

A generous reading of Do You Remember Love might label it an unintentional critique of Macross. The latter was already a work of little narrative depth (although this isn’t to say it lacks thematic depth). In trying to recreate this through abbreviation, the game gets right to the heart of Macross’ appeal as a popular work by doing away with the last vestiges of narrative depth to become a loose collection of scenes and story elements. Where the film tries to make sense of the chaos and reach out for something real, the game cuts right to the chase by giving up that search in favor of embracing the meaninglessness itself.

It’s an admittedly esoteric reading, one that relies more on the game’s status as a pop culture artifact than as an artistic work, but it also illuminates our expectations of and relationship with the pop media that game represents. As easy as it may be to interpret some works as empty containers for the aesthetics, tropes, familiar narrative beats etc. they present to us, I have my doubts about how much that interpretation can hold true in practice. The container is never truly empty; how it contains is just as important as what it contains, as these two works so aptly demonstrate. Do You Remember Love’s key mistake isn’t a misunderstanding of Macross, per se. It’s the belief that its relationship with Macross is a completely neutral one.

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