As I previously discussed when writing about RUN=DIM: Return to Earth, the economic and cultural realities of video game development place a limit on my goal of promoting greater critical engagement with the games we play. It’s rare to encounter a game that truly approaches that limit; even if the game itself isn’t open to that kind of engagement, players can often find the tools they need within the game to bring it about regardless. Yet rare doesn’t mean impossible. There still exist those infrequent moments when a game, embracing its status as a consumable object to be used for whatever it’s worth and forever tossed aside after, clears away all personal expression in the name of the player’s enjoyment. Because “enjoyment” is a more complicated and fraught concept than the game is willing to acknowledge, it often seals its own doom through those very efforts.
Needless to say, Flying Hero: Bugyuru no Daibouken belongs to this category of games. Information on the game is scarce. Excluding basic information like who created this game and when, we’ve only the game object itself to examine. Looking at the game at this level suggests it reduces itself to others’ expectations of what it should be to a greater extent than RUN=DIM. Not bound by a specific set of standards like its later peer, Flying Hero frees itself to conform to a more general set of standards. The game is quick in committing itself to that task, and while it succeeds, one wonders what the game accomplishes by it.
Throughout the past decade or so, it’s become more commonplace to accept the messiness of video games. Consider it a part of the critical sphere’s efforts to move past games being mere consumer products and toward understanding them as a form of artistic expression. To do so, critics feel they must reject the notion that a game’s failures have no value of their own to contribute. But in this same feeling we see just how incomplete the transformation is. If messiness is phrased in terms of the game’s failures, IE as lying outside intention, then we remain incapable of approaching it as an artistic method in itself that a game can purposefully employ. In effect, we limit ourselves our discussions to assuming all methods of creating art as aiming toward a single ideal of polish and refinement.
This isn’t to say polish and messiness are mutually exclusive concepts. In fact, a lot of what makes Twinkle Star Sprites so distinctive (and much of what I want to discuss about it) is how it figures refinement into its oddly chaotic artistic method. Released for an aging system in late 1996, the game is defined by its historical moment. It deeply admires the genres and motifs that dominated arcades of the time, and it demonstrates a keen understanding of both as it works with them. It is both confident in its vision and intelligent enough to possess the clarity needed to make that vision a reality. At the same time, the game constantly expresses that admiration by disrupting the objects of its affection – all to bring out a potential in them that a more conventional approach may leave out. This is how Twinkle Star Sprites can be both so chaotic and so charismatic.
Judgement Silversword is a deceptively difficult game to talk about. At first glance, this late WonderSwan game appears quick in supplying players lenses with which to understand the action, and I have no trouble describing my own experiences with the game. They were stressful, demanding, and unpleasant. The crux of the issue is that this experience makes up but a small part of what Judgement Silversword is. It’s in working out what those other parts are and the relationships between them where that difficulty shows itself. The lenses the game supplies (IE the trends it happens to intersect with), far from illuminating what the game is, complicate matters significantly either by hiding the game’s complexity or doing away with it altogether.
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.
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.
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.
I want to begin this by expanding on thoughts I first developed in writing about System Shock 2. Here I argued that the nature/technology dichotomy driving the game’s narrative gestures toward a transcendence of the self made necessary because that self has been revealed as weak and conceptually unstable. In truth, this one dichotomy is part of a much larger network of binaries meant to explain how humanity relates to its own existence. Nature/technology, self/other, body/world – not only do these binaries make existence understandable by breaking it down into distinct and stable categories, but they also justify any attempt to control that existence. With one side presented as inert matter to be worked on and the other (usually us) as making it useful by supplying it with activity, the first term becomes incapable of rejecting the second. Control becomes inevitable and any problem it might have posed becomes easy to dismiss.
I guess it was inevitable that I would eventually encounter a game like RUN=DIM: Return to Earth. As a writer, my ethos has always been to promote stronger critical engagement with games, and my approach to this has always been to look at games that people routinely overlook and/or dismiss. What alternate histories do they point to? How do they conceptualize games? What new possibilities do either of these things allow us to realize? These are the questions I hope to answer through my writing. Of course, there is a problem with my method: my focus on older games overlaps with a focus on commercially sold games, and time and again, games in the consumer space have proven themselves not only artistically dead, but also opposed to any sort of wider artistic or historical engagement. My response to this has been to resist the consumerist mentality embedded in games like this to find the value they may not realize they ever had.
RUN=DIM inadvertently challenges this. To provide a brief summary of the game, it’s a Wonderswan shooter based on the anime of the same name. Despite these origins, it may be better described as a Korean video game than as a Japanese one (at least judging by the credits). However, nationality is less important to understanding RUN=DIM than the fact of its being a consumer product. The game is remarkably honest on this point, but that honesty serves to deflect the question of what substance, if any, the game actually has. This is because RUN=DIM has no substance to speak of. What it instead offers is a sort of brazen nihilism: “I am nothing. I speak to nothing and what you do with me means nothing; play me anyway.”
Gley Lancer begins on a scene far out in space, with two warring factions primed to face one another in combat. We don’t know who the combatants are or what their stakes in the battle are, and frankly, they’re not important to our understanding of the events at hand. The sturdy military march, the admiration for high level military tactics and machinery (both abstracted away from real situations) – these direct our attention toward action and plot. On this level we see a miscalculation on the heroes’ part result in the enemy abducting a commander with his entire ship. Upon hearing of this, the commander’s daughter (and protagonist of the game) Ensign Lucia Cabrock acts against military authority by commandeering a top secret military weapon to save her father.
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.