When writing about games, I try to avoid interpretations that would dismiss a game as making absolutely no sense. Although a game may look arbitrary at first glance, a sustained analysis of that game will eventually reveal some logic providing the game structure and direction. All embracing our initial impressions would do is justify our desire to avoid that kind of engagement with a game we don’t believe deserves it. Captain ED is the one exception to this rule. The wild disorientation one feels as they play this game is so forceful and so thoroughly enmeshed in the game’s design that one cannot ignore this point when discussing the game. Furthermore, its profound resistance to fitting any clear meanings make it hard to determine what one is supposed to do with these feelings. Unlike so many of the other games I write about, there’s a real possibility that there is no logic underpinning Captain ED, and that its construction is as arbitrary as it initially seems.
But that remains to be determined; a difficult task. There are practical concerns to worry about. Information on the game tends to be sparse, and what little there is isn’t of much help in interpreting the game. We’ve only the play experience to work with. Yet even supposing we avert this problem, there remains the more significant methodological problem of how we discuss the game at all. To understand Captain ED we must first outline its most basic premises. In laying out these rules the game adheres to, we implicitly suggest the game operates according to a set of clearly communicated and purposefully constructed rules, thus betraying our emotional experience of the game being beyond logic. In other words, the very act of discussing this game risks severely mischaracterizing it. I can think of no solution to this problem. All I can do is acknowledge its existence.
Our game begins with a young boy enthusiastically asking us to give him a name. Whatever existential implications this exchange might hold, Captain ED shows no interest in probing them. Instead this moment is meant to signal how bare and free of pretense the game as a whole is. It’s ready to admit itself as nothing more than a game made for somebody to play with because that’s all it wants to envision itself as, and it’s nothing if not willing to conform to these expectations it’s set up for itself.
The rules of play would seem to confirm this, or at least the act of explaining those rules does. I don’t mean this in the specific sense of conforming to video game generic convention. True, Captain ED bears some important resemblances to contemporary shooters: you pilot a spaceship from a constantly advancing overhead perspective, shooting down whatever abstract alien creatures come your way. However, framing the game like this would overstate those aspects’ importance. They’re quick to fade into irrelevance; you spend most of the game not shooting or dodging enemy fire, but searching out secrets by uncovering the colored tiles that constitute the field of play: power-ups, fuel for your ship, money to buy key items, secret passageways etc. There’s also a narrative about rescuing your friends from some evil force, but with Captain ED being what it is, it’s hard to judge that fact’s potential relevance. What is clear, though, is that the game envisions its own “just a game” status in a bit too general a light to fit discretely defined video game genres.
This is Captain ED in theory. Captain ED in practice exhibits little if any of the structure my previous descriptions of it might imply. Upon beginning the game, my first impression was of a game whose underlying logic (assuming it even had any) was beyond my ability to discern. Events would happen of their own accord: tiles changed color on a whim and a mysterious force would move my ship to and fro. “How should I react to these developments?”, I thought. “Should I be worried about the effects they have on my playing the game, or would another response be more appropriate?” At first, I couldn’t answer these questions. The consequences to anything were far too occluded to say anything of authority.
Eventually I would discern some of the game’s logic, like what each color means as far as my ship is concerned. However, my initial impressions were closer to the truth than I knew at the time. While individual sections of the game may make some internal (albeit obtuse) sense of their own, the composition of those sections together wants for that same level of coherence. One minute, I’m piloting my ship across a colored play field. The next, I’m playing a board game that can only be described as a series of coin flips. Yet another minute passes and I’m playing cards. One occasion saw me cast into a dark void and presented with a choice between four identical doors. Without anything connecting these disparate moments into something meaningful, Captain ED is consigned to being a wild collage of ludic elements scattered throughout the game. Its anarchic structure far exceeds Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom and in some respects might pose a challenge to Kick Challenger: Air Foot.
This kind of structure admittedly makes Captain ED a frustrating game to play through, and that frustration may be justified. Opting out of more discrete frameworks means the games will struggle to justify something as discrete as its shooter facade, which would explain why that facade feels as underdeveloped as it does. I also can’t ignore what this does to potential dramatic arcs: namely, bury them amid copious amounts of noise.
At the same time, we have reason to believe the game isn’t as easily understood as the nonsense interpretation would suggest. For one thing, it must be acknowledged that we arrive at this interpretation because the game refutes a set of standards (in this case, those of the overhead shooter) for how commercial video games should look and behave. Were we asked to justify this approach, we’d find that the evidence for why those standards must apply here is weaker than we would care to admit.
More importantly, I want to return to a point I made earlier about there being consistent rules to be discerned through play. The ways in which this affects Captain ED cannot be understated. It is as a direct result of there being rules that play (or more specifically, the achieving of certain goals) becomes a series of patterns to navigate. Those rules define sequences which play must follow, and, in giving me a place to participate in the game through play, they constrain my behavior in such a way as to conform to those patterns. The walkthrough I followed outlines some of these patterns, and my own experiences bore them out: shoot away enemies, uncover what tiles I can, collect what I uncover (or warp to another part of the game), repeat until I reach that level’s boss. What all of this means is that Captain ED can never completely flout the meaning making process. Even if that was its goal, these conclusions suggest, if not intentional arrangement on the game’s part, then at least meaningful information to be gleaned from the repetition of specific elements.
This raises a question: how does one interpret a game that so heavily resists interpretation? Given the significance we’ve determined patterns possess in regards to Captain ED, our methodology should be able to account for them. Fortunately, Midboss’ piece “Bad Images” does exactly this. Their article was but one part of a much larger discussion last year over why (modern mainstream blockbuster) games, obsessed with maximalism/naturalism/literalism/hyperrealism/etc. as they are, so consistently fail to produce striking imagery. Some of their failure stems from the belief that this aesthetic style alone is enough to guarantee striking imagery, meaning they fail to actually do anything with the tools they’ve supplied themselves. Another reason, Midboss argues, is that games are designed in such a way that we have to resist them to produce good images, like turning off the user interface to take a screenshot.
It’s this second line of reasoning that Midboss develops the most throughout their piece. According to them, the core reason video games don’t produce good images isn’t only because people have been approaching them on the wrong terms, but they’ve been approaching them on terms opposed to what games fundamentally are. Rather than analyze them through the singular image and everything that implies, they recommend looking at games through the logic of patterns. That logic is already pervasive in games, from their visual aesthetics (RPGMaker’s tiles, textures in 3D games) to how they play (combos, completing quests). It’s even written into the very DNA of games through code.
Finally, it should be noted that because they juxtapose patterns against the singular image, Midboss sees patterns as resisting deliberation, stating, “While the powerful image is a singular composition, pattern can just repeat indefinitely, resisting the idea of ‘subject.’” I won’t go so far in my own assessment. As I stated before, the use of patterns doesn’t preclude their being used intentionally. At best, they only change how that intent appears to us when seeing the final product.
There are clear resonances between these ideas and Captain ED, and those resonances should help dispel some of our initial confusion with the game. But before we do, I want to return briefly to Kick Challenger: Air Foot to note how much more easily it demonstrates Midboss’ ideas of patterns refuting deliberation. In this game we see imagery used to undermine perspective, and heavy use of collage throughout to more thoroughly sabotage any attempt at interpretation.
By comparison, Captain ED appears almost tame. The use of primary colors and well defined grids that provides the game its aesthetic backbone affords several easy models through which we can understand the game, even if we have trouble recognizing those models at first; even if that aesthetic might obscure things we could otherwise easily determine. On the one hand, the colors, when considered alongside the game’s emphasis on novelty, make Captain ED seem like a toy, IE an object I interact with primarily to uncover its secrets for no other sake than to do so. On the other hand, the neatly laid out grid connotes mathematical determinism, further strengthening the idea that the game isn’t as arbitrary as it initially seems.
I’m less interested in choosing one explanation over the other and more interested in looking at how those explanations overlap, for it is in this overlap that we can finally identify something definite about Captain ED. Whether approached as a toy or as mathematical symbols, we find that the most meaningful aspects of the game are those that change our relationship with the space we’re presented with: uncovering items, warping to new areas, collecting a power-up that lets me ignore the colored tiles’ effect on me. In other words, Captain ED as a game is less about discrete acts and more about spatial relationships. Yet I feel like we should be clear about what those relationships can be. Unlike Youkai Yashiki or Gomola Speed – games which ground their destabilization effect in a physical or representational logic – Captain ED’s board game-like abstraction moves us away from that and toward a more allegorical logic.
The imagery the game employs only reinforces this argument. Its iconography makes frequent and visible references to pop Japanese mythos/religion, ranging from palaces home to various gods to the occasional encounter with a treasure ship (although oddly to give treasure rather than receive it). Levels even end with an explicit visit to God at the gates of Heaven. Granted, the indeterminate nature of these images in practice makes deciphering them difficult, but the juxtaposition of religious motifs and board games recalls the use of board games to teach religious virtue, and the emphasis on movement is potentially reminiscent of pilgrimages. At last, we have a solid idea of what Captain ED is supposed to be: an allegorical depiction of the spiritual journey to enlightenment.
Unfortunately, this interpretation may create as many problems as it solves. What are we to make of the role wealth plays in the game? Many of the game’s activities are centered around gathering money, whether that’s betting in casinos or happening upon money hidden under the nearest tile. And not only is this activity necessary to complete the game (bosses don’t become available until you buy a certain item), but Captain ED encourages the active accumulation of wealth. Money will make you powerful; money will protect you from harm. Are we meant to read this as an argument that wealth is necessary to live a truly virtuous life? That, because we cannot rescue our friends without becoming wealthy, money is a necessary component of even our most basic interpersonal relationships?
One could argue that Captain ED never makes such claims. One might look to how erratic the mini-games make Captain ED and surmise that, far from contributing to our well being, these activities are mere distractions on the path to true fulfillment. This would turn the game into a morality tale, but at least at first glance, it appears consistent with the game’s design. Most of the mini-games (“traps” as the game calls them) are basic leisure activities like cards and music. Yet for this tale to work, the game would have to give us some method of avoiding these distractions, something the random design has precluded from the start. Instead, we find ourselves in a Snakes and Ladders situation, our personal morality subject to the fickle whims of a world beyond our ability to control. So maybe the game’s aesthetic thrust is learning to accept our place in a world beyond our control.
Yet even this explanation feels insufficient. There’s still too much in the game we’ve failed to account for, like the abundance of musical references, or how bosses – entities with weak spatial motifs but who are more strongly patterned than any other part of the game – work from a thematic perspective. Maybe our initial assumption was right: the entire process of discrete meaning making is irrelevant to Captain ED’s project, and it can only ever resist our attempts to pin it down. In the interest of being fair to the game, however, I want to give it one last chance and proceed under the assumption that, rather than being a weakness, its ability to destabilize any meaning we attempt to read into it is one of Captain ED’s greatest strengths.
Allow me to explain. As I’ve explored in previous writing (but most notably when writing about Paper Mario: Color Splash), play – in fact, all forms of artistic engagement – is a dialectical process of meaning making between the player and the game. This grants a lot of power to the player to determine what the game ultimately is, but it also grants power to the game to set the terms by which the player makes that determination. For better or worse, I see this tension as defining the modern video game landscape. Despite the power at our disposal, players have generally proven averse to complex, ambiguous meanings in games, IE meanings that would necessitate our active participation beyond performing actions in the game. Thus we’ve flocked to games that appear to give us the pre-packaged and unambiguous meaning we want and that would make our interactions with games less conceptually difficult.
Alternatively, we could emphasize the ways in which players maintain an active role with these games. Indeed, games appear designed in a way that, through our active engagement with them, we arrive at exactly that meaning the game has been leading us toward. The mere act of play is enough to make us complicit in the cycle of empty consumption games are often implicated in. But then how we do avoid this? By our own admission, isn’t the process of meaning making built into the very roles of game and player? And what of my experiences here? Need I arrive at something better through playing Captain ED to justify that act to myself, or is all of this a solipsistic thought exercise?
These questions may be beyond Captain ED. In fact, its relationship with them may complicate more than it resolves. On the one hand, approaching the game with issues like these in mind reveals key resonances with Dada, that artistic tradition dedicated to questioning the traditions surrounding art by interrupting our understanding of those traditions. Captain ED’s interruptions are easy enough to point to. The boy asking for a name may signal the game as just a game, but it also inadvertently presents reality and fiction as less ontologically distinct or stable as they initially seem. Likewise, the rampant use of true RNG (as opposed to the illusion of RNG) undermine whatever determinism we normally read into games.
But these are just examples; themselves unable to confirm anything more significant about the game. We’re still left with the question of whether or not Captain ED truly encourages us to question our relationship with art in general. This may be a presumptive question – one based in the same mainstream video game standards we wish to scrutinize – but it’s one I feel our approach demands nonetheless. Unfortunately, I’m inclined to say no. This has little to do with our previous conclusions about Captain ED being unable to refute meaning making at large. Even so, there would still be value in its complicating the process and minimizing its importance. More pressing is the fact that the game doesn’t have enough of a sustained interested in these ideas to actively pursue them. Whatever potential they may have, it is up to me, the player, to realize that potential by acting against the game. In the end, that might be Captain ED’s greatest failing: not its chaotic design, but its failure to see everything that design is capable of achieving.
I’ll admit that what I’ve written about Captain ED has turned out more ambivalent than I’d initially set out. In talking about the game, I always handle it through indirect means, wavering this way and that without committing to any one interpretation. Reflecting on this approach now, it comes across as oddly reminiscent of the time I spent playing the game, which tempts me into believing this to be a more honest approach to Captain ED than something firmer would be. How does one accurately represent a game as unstable and uncertain as this with a truth that promises to dispel those very qualities? All one can do in this scenario is present what the game is or could be and leave others to their own conclusions.