Friday, March 29, 2013

Too Many Speculative Fiction Stories

When I saw the line up for Clarkesworld's March issue, something in me got a little overexcited. Aliette de Bodard and Genevieve Valentine write incredible short fiction, and I like A.C. Wise a lot too, though I haven't read as much. For some reason - partially, probably, because I visit Clarkesworld often but rarely end up reading most of it - I took this as a sign that March in free online speculative fiction was going to be apeshit in terms of quality. So I read way too goddamn much of it, and now I am going to alchemize that time I spent on BART trains and smoke breaks into pure, unadulterated aspirational labor, just for you.

Aliette de Bodard's "The Weight of a Blessing" is one of the best short stories I have ever read, and I don't have a whole lot to say beyond that. It is important. Its fractured structure, always unable to reconcile with itself; its thematic threads picked carefully and woven beautifully; its moments of conflict, presented with all their deferment and difficulty; basically, everything, everything.

And there was "Loss, with Chalk Diagrams" this month too, by E. Lily Yu, whose story had me at first skeptical, but ultimately attached itself to my brain very firmly. I thought at first it was to be another future world without emotional distress, where grief was moralized as a Part of Human Nature, another thin allegory for biopolitics. And I think it can and will and has been read that way, probably, but there is a subtlety to the narration, which exists ephemerally between the characters and is dramatized by the deteriorating media of chalk and postcards in the story itself, that makes produces this story in a space outside the moralistic and gives it real power. Consider these lines; "She took a drag on the cigarette, and smoke flowered from her mouth." and, a few bits of dialogue later, "Rebekah said, waving away the smoke." That slight shift in the narrative's focus on the object of smoke changes everything. And, like Weight, Loss ends on such an understated note that you almost don't notice the vertiginous depths of its betrayal.

Ekaterina Sedia's "Snow" is a story about the flows of a city, in this case the "micro-regions on the outskirts of Moscow," where the (as far as I can tell, ungendered) narrator tells talks to us about the way that the daily rhythms of avoiding neighbours and smoking at the bus stop and going to the market become intertwined with ethnic violence. This is a crime story in which the murder is in no way an exceptional case, where the is no such thing as an exceptional case, because the rhythm of place is the truth, the way a place interweaves its outsides into its interlocked system. It is, like Let the Right One In, what the Coen Brothers dream they could make, only even more, its violence the kind that makes you rejoice not when you meet an old friend for the first time in years, but when she leaves quickly.

Caitlín R. Kiernan had two stories published by Subterranean Press for free online this month; one in the Spring issue of Subterranean Magazine and one on the page for her short story collection The Ape's Wife and Other Stories. "One Tree Hill" is the latter and it is a pretty incredible little bit of Lovecraftiana; I am not especially familiar with Kiernan's work but she seems to be hitting it out of the fucking park as far as critical endorsements in the places I visit go, and I was glad that even though "One Tree Hill" didn't crush me with its brilliance or whatever that it jabbed the fuck out of me with its images. Shades of Lovecraft's "The Color Out Of Space" and first part of "The Mound" gave the story a distinct tint for me, and coupled with lines like "I am quite entirely aware I am trapped inside, and that I am writing down, anything but an original tale of uncanny New England" make the story feel slight. Not that this is a bad thing at all: very well written, and truly imaginative, slight Weird fiction reads superbly and I wish there were more of it. On top of that, Kiernan manages to do something that I, at least, deeply appreciate; by insisting on the possibility that it is all a dream, she subverts that annoying madness moralism, that unendingly dull implication of systems of medical oppression that so Lovecraft so adored (and that make "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" simultaneously his best and worst story) by way of an implicit acknowledgment of form. If, as roughly every human being ever would claim, "It was all a dream" is an unpardonable narrative copout, then fine; Kiernan cops her way right out of abdicating her fidelity to the Weird. This slight Weird story might well mark a true shift away from slavering over that deeply fucking stupid line at the beginning of "Call of Cthulhu" without losing the cool shit that came out of it, and I for one would be ecstatic about that.

Anyway, there was actually quite a few Slight Weird stories published this month. For instance: "The Sign in the Moonlight" by David Tallerman is maybe the slightest Weird story I've ever read. It's got an icy mountain, a magician (Crowley, nonetheless) and a cult who performs a ritual to summon tentacly moon people through a mirror; he's basically just played the whole scale. There's nothing particularly exciting about it, not to me at least, but for me at least it works very nicely.

Equally worthy of acknowledgment in the Slight Weird is Sarena Ulibarri's "The Bolt Tightener," about a man who gets a job tightening bolts around a sea wall, encounters a monstrous tentacled thing, kills it, and brings about the end of the world (in the SFnal sense of world(building), at least). Again, nothing to send you into rapture here, but often as not it is the repetition that matters, the way the unavoidable difference inscribes itself as the same, and the same decomposes into the soil for the different.

And if the Slight Weird is a compost heap then let me give outsized thanks to Jeff VanderMeer for offering to mulch a fucking house into it with "No Breather in the World but Thee." I kind of have, like, a thing about houses, okay, but there's also the fact that if Sedia's "Snow" is Let the Right One In then "Breather" is its remake, or early Argento, all traumatic perspectival shifts looping around a misprised Hitchcockian eye. The fractured narrative (as each character dies horribly and the focus shifts) keeps the rapidly escalating scale (going from a dead fish's rolling eye to a pitched battle between a mansion and a tower) from becoming self-parody, and the way the catalyzing incident keeps rescinding into the background as the coolness of the hostile objects manifests and moves on keeps the story moving at a clip and keeps the narrative confined to where it always should be, the ever-retreating frame. "Breather" is obviously a bit meatier than the two previous Slight Weird stories but I still think it belongs among them, and if you disagree then feel free to invent a category that isn't as stupid as this one. It shouldn't be hard at all, since what the fuck am I even talking about at this point.

Then there is this month's stories from the Weird Fiction Review, which, speaking of liking A.C. Wise, includes a reprint of her story from the Fungi anthology, "Where Dead Men Go To Dream." I wasn't incredibly impressed, but damn if the images don't linger. The same can be said of K.J Bishop's "The Love of Beauty;" I wasn't really thinking of including either here, but something certainly stuck, and I would feel like such a fool if it turned out I ignored them now then decided they were indispensable later. Carlos Díaz Dufoo's "Selections from Nervous Tales," on the other hand, I am pretty confident about; the three short stories here are borderline prose poems, the language elliptical and estranging. Of the three, I think the very brief "The Death of the 'Master'" is the most noteworthy, capturing in brief the joyous and irreconcilable tension between forms (here, stories and painting) in a way that escapes my own exegetical faculties but seems rich with possibility.

Speaking of that tension, Caitlín R. Kiernan's "The Prayer of Ninety Cats" is a narrative that straddles the line between script and viewing experience, detailing in second person a speculative film about Elizabeth Bathory in a way that shows an incredible sensitivity to the way that film's affect their viewers while also incorporating historical and aesthetic analyses that makes this Weird story the gnarled fruits of the decomposed Slight. Like Kiernan's other one from this month, there's a bit of a metafictional tinge here that seems, well, uncanny; it is hard to tell exactly whether or not it detracts from the story's overall Weirdness, but the formal experimentation here quickly makes that point a moot one. Somehow this story ends up being almost as good as de Bodard's, as inapt as any more detailed comparison might be. This too is a phenomenal collision of form and content, the story of Bathory's fall viewed through the silver screen being situated in just the right space that it reflects the form in a distorted grotesquery. Everything here is in it's right place, and I can't even imagine, after this story, a Weird canon without Kiernan heavily featured.

Speaking of experiments, Jake Kerr is revealing himself to be a bit of a one-trick pony, isn't he? I was kind of into "The Old Equations" when I first read it, which was also when I started reading all these online magazines; his new one, "Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince" just keeps flogging that quasi-epistolary horse down its slightly-less-well-trod path. Hey, he is risking poison ivy for the good of the genre, everyone; give this guy a round of applause, and maybe a couple Nebulas. I mean, don't get me wrong (or do, yes, maybe do, always, that would probably be way more interesting), I enjoyed the story. It, also like Kiernan's "Cats," is a rumination on art, although it seems more interested in the historical and psychological than the formal or aesthetic, and, like Yu's "Loss," it is also about shades of grief or guilt and the complexities introduced to them in a transparently presently extrapolated future. Unfortunately both of those stories were published this month as well though, so.

On the topic of things I hate, Ben Heldt's "Fidelity" was just about the only thing published in Daily Science Fiction this month that didn't leave me all pissy. I can't stand flash fiction, and while I think it is cool that they are doing their thing or whatever, I cannot fucking stomach the amount of it I read, ever. "Fidelity" is a perfectly adequate little "is it or isn't it" bit of science fiction, about a man whose wife either stayed behind from her space flight or was replaced by a perfect robot. Neat, right.

Margrét Helgadóttir's "The Rescue" at Luna Station Quarterly manages to be an interesting story about enclaves and preservation, genetic engineering and political isolation, while also incorporating a little linguistic twist that is more interesting in and of itself than for its particular content. I would class this one alongside any of the stories in this month's Crossed Genres, although most probably "Mother of Waters" by April L'Orange, as doing things that are well constructed and probably very interesting in a way that I am unfortunately kind of blind to. "La Coeur De La Mer" by Alexandra Zomchek, also at Luna Station Quarterly, has a couple instances of really outstanding language as well.

The other story from Eclipse Online this month was An Owomoyela's "In Metal, In Bone," which, if VanderMeer is Hostile Object Theory, is a bit closer to a fantasy Internet of Things; the protagonist can access the memory of others through objects, and is sent to a war zone to identify remains by way of remembering through their bones. The end of this one is a little too Neat! for my tastes, but then I can barely bring myself to give a shit about the end of a piece of fiction even when I try, so who cares really. The story as a whole is very strong, both compelling and productive in its tight use of language and pleasantly light on the narrative. It is, I think, an exemplary story, one that remains transparent enough to read deeply the first time through but no weaker because of this.

Anil Menon's "Dialetheia" has a similar sort of quality, as a story following an Australian mathematics doctoral student in 1930s Germany whose dissertation is preempted by Gödel. The story itself works exactly as it seems to want to, creating a believable group of sets and characters and telling a story in and through them, which concerns itself with the relationship between science and story. Setting itself in the moment when the Weimar Republic began its quick slide into the Third Reich is maybe a little obvious, but the strength of "Dialetheia" has less to do with subtlety and more with its implication of a strong argument for the way we tell ourselves stories, and create myths, around math and science, and how when we don't do it, well, Hitler.

Toh EnJoe's "A To Z Theory" does something similar, although in his hands it reads less as an argument and more like a freewheeling kaleidoscope of associations that occasionally falls into a pattern that turns out to be a high-powered laser.

I feel like this month's issues of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is kin to this month's Crossed Genres; both venues published solid short stories that I will definitely remember but that also I haven't got much to say about. Of the two issues that BCS put out, I think I would most highly recommend Alec Austin's "Blood Remembers," if only for being kind of beautifully "fuck you, FANTASY" in a way that hardly any other stories I read during this experience were; it is the story of a church schism told with the kind of magic that exists basically just to do hella cool shit with, and fuck your nerdy systems. I mean, that is what I took from it at least; I can be an aggressively shitty reader when it suits my purposes, and maybe that is just what I am doing. Possibly the same reason I remain so into "The Rescue," which I talked about earlier. The two also seem to share a kinship.

Kat Howard's "Painted Birds and Shivered Bones" might have fit best next to the discussion of the other stories which incorporate other types of art practices into their stories, but here it is anyway. I was initially kind of disappointed with this one; I was totally enamoured with her "Breaking the Frame," and while it managed to track out that poetic relation to form in a similar way to Dufoo's "'Master,'" it didn't seem particularly good at losing sight of itself or tracing out its own incidentals in the way that, I thought, would make it a wonderful story instead of an awkwardly long prose poem. The images of "Bones" have stuck with me fiercely though, so I feel much less critical of it now than I did immediately after reading.

Bryan Francis Slattery's "The Syndrome" - the last Subterranean story I will be talking about, I promise - is sort of the opposite of the last few I have been discussing. If the nebulous lingering sense of interest characterizes a lot of what I have been recommending here, then "Syndrome" is just interesting, full stop. It is an undead story, in which a long-past event raised the dead and transformed society along a zombie-vampire spectrum. It does some unapologetic Mad Maxing - you know, postapocalypse as TINA teleology - which fits nicely into its positing of undead subjectivities as ontologically different with respect to temporality. That the undead view history as space rather than time is established regularly, and the story tracks the reemergence of the liberal progressive narrative within the dual emergence of forms of humanism (art) and the repressive state. The wonky fantastic elements ("vampires" who eat "zombies" get some sort of permanent ability/curse to see the present outcome of all possible timelines) couple with the limited narration (a psychologist) to paint a very intellectual picture of this collapsing of exhausted genre tropes. It is a thinky little fucker, and while it hasn't left me trying to puzzle it together since finishing it I did enjoy the way it kept me fully engaged for just as long as it was.

"The Horse Latitudes" by Sunny Moraine was kind of similar here, in effect and for me, at least. Its central image is a bit colored by both that scene from Fellowship of the Rings and The Ring (the horses, y'know), unfortunately, but the interlocking timelines turning into a bit of a return of the repressed do a similar thing, if to less incredible effect (and I hardly mean that as a dig), to "The Weight of a Blessing." It ends up being a little more conventional, and feeling a little less pressing, than "Weight," but damn if that still doesn't make it well worth a read, as far as I can tell.

Returning to the Clarkesworld issue that sent me down this hellish path to begin with, A.C. Wise's second-person subversion of the sexbot subgenre with "The Last Survivor of the Great Sexbot Revolution" plays with gendered assumptions of the generic, telling a properly Harawayan cyborg love story whose formal idiosyncrasies support the thematic content and provide them a depth that allows the words themselves a strong foundation on which to build. And it doesn't disappoint.

Joyce Chng's "Eagle Feathers" seems at first to fit into this pattern as well, but there is an understatedness to it that opens it into something much bigger. A story of development against nature, and the fantastical form of revenge, it is marked by a kind of heterogeneous wish fulfillment without being in any way pandering. The oily monstrosity is somewhere between, in my mind, Fern Gully and Cyclonopedia, with all the weird weight that puts on it, and though it seems a fairly straightforward bit of fabulism there is an economy of expression here that defies the simple call to categorization. The way that small symbols get woven into the fabric of the tale, situating its fabulism by way of the thematic and cultural particular, gives this story a peculiar heft well worth exploring.

Genevieve Valentine's "86, 87, 88, 89" from this month's Clarkesworld left me kind of underwhelmed - it felt a little more Jake Kerr than Caitlín R. Kiernan, if you get me - but luckily she also had "Terrain" published this month, which is probably a story that had people gripping the edges of their smartphones just dying to know what happens or whatever but holy shit, lets just ignore that and talk about how incredibly fucking on she can be with those clipped sentences when she is writing about the setting. The sentences themselves, the way they are so sharp they just snip right off the rest of the paragraph, and they suggest so much, and slowly accrue until you finally run across like, a whole four-sentence paragraph and it feels like the heaviest thing you've ever read, like this dead character fucking died; but more than that, the landscape, the way this supremely non-mimetic weight gives these words a space to create space and fucking feel like space. I am pretty into it.

And finally, finally. This story would've fit in a discussion with others but I wanted to leave it to last because it is the only story I just straight up liked as much as "Weight;" "Town's End" by Yukimi Ogawa. Ogawa's "The Earth of Ashes" was one of my favorite stories of last year, and "Town's End" maintains the elegance while introducing a kind of whimsy. I also have very little to actually say here, but of everything I read this month, "Town's End" was, for me, absolutely the most pleasurable, and I don't mean that in some escapist page-turner sense; I mean its language works its way into you, and reconfigures something small inside.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A/Functional Definition: 55 Theses on Final Fantasy VII

Introduction: In this essay, I am attempting to analyze Final Fantasy VII using a number of ideas; the idea of design, the idea of genre, and the idea of games as such loom the largest. There are a number of ways to read this, I think, none of which is particularly privileged from my point of view. Grab a random thesis here or there, weave your own thread; argue one point or the whole thrust; see it as an engagement with certain other writers (who I, the writer, have, as a person, an immense amount of respect for) or as a temporary knot by which I’ve tied together many threads I’ve been working on here for some time. Treat it as a 201 course in defamiliarization and productive obfuscation, or as a sad trainwreck of an attempt to translate into a dead language. Stop here. Read the embedded links alone, and fuck the critical hypertext pooled up around them. Read only (6), (10), (22), (33), (47), and either (50) or (55). Yell at me having read it or not; I would be very interested.

1) Rinoa and Death at Nightmare Mode proposes (or at least leads me to consider) the idea that the assumption that scrolling through dialogue in a jRPG is very much the central component of the genre, and not some sort of break from the gameplay.

2) The linked essay, R.I.P J-RPG on Matthew Weise's blog proposes that jRPGs are a "grab bag of game design."

3) A half-remembered, and possibly apocryphal, story about someone who may or may not be Shigesato Itoi brings itself to mind, in which the person claims that the second that a player forces an NPC to repeat their dialogue in a game, that the game is broken. This is obviously wrong, for non-obvious reasons.

4) Cloud is presented, from the beginning, not as an amnesiac protagonist, with the tutorial bits in the gym in Sector 7 being the clearest indication of this. He instead could be most probably described as schizoid.

5) What might be considered the hallmark of jRPGs is the turn- and menu-based battle system. This can be seen most clearly in the way that any deviation from this mode is automatically and necessarily recognized as such.

6) Given (5), the defining mechanic (as opposed to thematic or aesthetic) of the jRPG as a genre can be said to be abstraction.

7) Given (1) & (6), we can now respond to (3) & (2); if the defining, and therefore driving, mechanic of the jRPG is abstraction, then the design must reflect this. The repetition of dialogue by NPCs is just such a reflection; what we are reading is not meant to be a representation of what they are saying as such, but an abstract distillation of the information they presumably impart when prompted.

8) Given (7), the fact that the player runs around, breaking into people's homes and harassing everyone in sight, is much less weird.

9) Working from my earlier definition of the affect of games, this abstraction functions as the central "frustration" of play. It is the simultaneous desire of and disappointment within the game, seen primarily in the way the player will run around talking to every NPC in sight, only to scroll agitatedly past their dialogue without reading it.

10) The jRPG is in fact nothing whatsoever like a novel, except perhaps (and this is a big perhaps) in its thematic elements.

11) From the earliest indication, just before planting the bomb inside the Mako reactor, to the dissociative episode in the brothel (in the Wall Market lead-up to the Don Cornelius episode), all the way through the discovery of Zack and Cloud's "true" backstory, (4) holds, despite the metaphorical and problematic implications of the psychologizing language. This is important because amnesia is a meta-narrative device, whereas the schizoid is a characterological device.

12) The claims in (11) are not meant to reflect whatsoever on the lived reality of the psychological phenomena they metaphorically deploy. If there are more precise terms to be used here, I am not aware of them; there do not exist many tools for describing the particular mixture of personality disorder, biological trauma, and mystical influence over a character that Final Fantasy VII's secondary world makes a material concern for its inhabitants, and the deployment of this psychologistic terminology is both (a) my best recourse, as I see it, and(b) meant to fit it into a specifically literary tradition of the rhetorical deployment of these psychologistic devices.

13) From (11) & (12), the claim can then be made that the character of Cloud is, as in the literary tradition if the schizoid character, also fundamentally an abstraction.

14) That is, Cloud, given the rhetorical device I'm referring to here as "schizoid," is fundamentally a character who is an abstraction of "character." This is in terms of both a) thematic, & b) mechanical content.

15) For grounding in (14b), see my review of Silent Hill: Revelation 3D in Strange Horizons. Specifically:
The assumption which is never, ever acknowledged, because it sounds too similar to what we know to be Bad Writing, is that a video game's protagonist is merely an object among objects, a cipher for the player to control, with no internal life of her own.

Because video games are an interactive form, and because the narrative arc tends to rely on making the player fully identify with the protagonist, a video game's protagonist cannot have their own robust interior life, which would only get in the way of the player's identification with them. The most obvious way this is done is with the amnesiac protagonist. This trope is so common precisely because it is such an elegant solution to the demands of video games, which need somehow to have a character who is the center of the story and yet is totally devoid of interiority; the amnesiac that we control is precisely that, an individual with a history that we can discover, but no memory.

16) Certain concepts in the quote within (15) need to be reworked, but for now it is hopefully enough to give sufficient context to (11) to proceed.

17) Given (11) (and its attendant theses (12) & (13)), & (15), (10) can now be elaborated upon.

18) The biggest issue with the quote in (15), as applied to Final Fantasy VII, then, is the use of the word "protagonist." While it seems that this is structurally justified, this is only on the narrative level; on the mechanical level, and the thematic level (by way of extrapolation of the mechanical), it is a dire choice of verbiage.

19) Which returns us to (10). When constructing arguments for the unique contribution of value that jRPGs bring to the form, most fans/apologists will invoke the novelistic or literary qualities that the subgenre provides. To be wildly reductive, these claims usually amount to arguing that jRPGs tell a story, whereas most games simply present one; Super Mario Bros., for instance, provides you with a story which serves to contextualize your actions, while Xenogears provides a world (with spatial, symbolic, and political aspects) to contextualize the story. Even something like Metal Gear Solid falls more along the lines of a Super Mario Bros. game than a Xenogears game, in this sense; the story is presented to you to contextualize the actions of your character, and the only difference is the amount of time it takes to do so.

20) A long time ago I wrote that the work of the novel can be subdivided into two clear categories; that of character, and that of style or prose. The obvious missing third is that of setting, or world, to use the parlance of the fantastic (although it should be noted how often authors are praised for collapsing setting into character, which occurs most often in genres where the setting is made primary, i.e. the road novel); when transpositing the function of auctoritas to the video game, however, where "designer" replaces "author," the subdivision is slightly altered.

21) Where the novelist produces "style," the designer produces both the distinct mechanical style ("gameplay") and aesthetic style ("style"); where the novelist produces "characters," the designer produces the quality of "immersiveness" and the quantity of "interactivity" (described in (15)). All of these terms (gameplay, style, immersiveness, and interactivity) should be seen not as aesthetic or technical quantities, but as labor.

22) From (21); the mode of labor that remains consistent between the novel and the video game is setting, or world. Since genre is primarily a machine for the reproduction of labor, this fact means that genre, insofar as it is porous between forms, can only be identified in terms of setting. All claims that a work's strength is derived, even in part, on its collapse of setting and character, into character (see: parenthetical to (20)) are, at least from the standpoint of genre criticism, necessarily both reductive and ideological.

23) (10) does not simply follow from (21); the reworked division of labor simply provides the groundwork. We are primarily concerned with the video game's division of "character," which details "immersiveness," a quality primarily available to the player in the construction of dialogue, and "interactivity," a quantity primarily available to the player in their capacity to project interiority into the vacuity of the player character (15).

24) A brief detour before we continue with the exegesis of (10); the genre of Final Fantasy VII is, to state the obvious, fantasy. This is seen, per (22), primarily in the world. From the idiomatic tropes (swords & sorcery, as it were) to the structuring of the world along the axes of both verticality vs. horizontality and nature vs. industry, and the ways those axes intersect, this is obviously the case. The game begins by rigorously identifying the vertical with the industrial, and the horizontal with the natural; see Midgar vs. the world map. As the narrative progresses, this identification is inverted; see the The Great Glacier and The Northern Crater, vertical nature, and Ultimate Weapon, horizontal industry. Of course, both of the latter examples are problematic, but this is another feature; the collapse of the axes precedes and persists through their inversion.

25) Since the setting is fantastical, it then follows, syllogistically, that the character -- more specifically, the protagonist -- develops along the lines of one identifiable character arc, ascribable to the Fantasy genre of fiction, right? Of course not; the subdivision of labor in the video game (which, here, we should take the time to note, is merely prescriptive, as we run the risk of recapitulating hierarchical models of art, with the video game subordinate to the novel; this is obviously bullshit. Anything resembling this High/Low split in form is merely an artefact of an attempt to remain clear while building upon established concepts, and all of it works, if it works at all, as a clear refutation of this hierarchy as such, in its own terms) makes clear the fact that "character" in a video game is a distinct and orthogonal labor practice to its counterpart in the novel.

26) One would think that Interactive Fiction would get brought up more in linking jRPGs to novels; this absence is telling.

27) Cloud as "schizoid," or a character whose fundamental premise is the abstraction of the quality of character, is simultaneously a critique and an instance of this unique subdivision of labor.

28) The critical aspect relies on familiarity with the amnesiac trope and its implementation as a solution to the concept of interactivity; Cloud can be said to be an amnesiac character, through the discovery of his stealing Zack's identity, but this doesn't happen until well within the story. What we get instead, from the beginning, are unattributed utterances, clearly speaking to Cloud, over a black background, and ghostly personality splits, as in the brothel section; these hint at the disordered mentality of the character while avoiding the common trope with which they are associated.

29) It is through a mixture of this hinting at, and its ultimate embrace of, this trope that the game also registers as an instance of it. That the resolution of the amnesiac trope is discovered only in a hidden sequence, unnecessary for completing the game, only compounds the ways in which the inversion of the assumed structure -- that of subversion, where a trope is established first as an instance and then, through that establishment, critiqued from within it -- functions to further the mechanical abstraction which is the primary design aspect of the game. Because of the pervasiveness of the amnesiac solution, its presence is always already felt; the narrative can completely forego its telling, and still reap its effects. It is only by incorporating it at the ludic level -- insofar as that can be opposed to the narratological level -- that the proper distancing effect can play out.

30) Cloud's presentation as literarily schizoid operates similarly; it is first interpreted as ambiguous (because of the structural overdetermination; in the specifics it is pushed pretty hard and unambiguously), and only after time and revelation can it be interpreted as a functional aspect of his character. Because of this meta-character development, which interacts obliquely with the mechanics, however, it remains abstracted.

31) Regarding (29), and its relation to (1); the jRPG, perhaps more than any other genre, is deeply problematic for the ludology/narratology split, in that, accepting that the driving aspect of game design for the genre is abstraction, the difference between the two is either minimally mechanical (the difference between clicking the [accept] button because you are done reading and actually reading) or it is maximally thematic (because all things which advance narrative are non-ludic, in which case the play of a jRPG is reduced to maybe a couple hours of engagement within an up to 100 hour long experience). While the latter is a position that people often inhabit to express their eventual dissatisfaction with the form (i.e. (2)), the former is much closer to being completely honest, in that it realizes the deeply inorganic split that these two ideas promote in the form.

32) The notion of "levels" has come up, in the sense of narrative versus mechanical versus thematic, and so on. This is a convenient metaphor, with inherent shortcomings; as far as arbitrary divisions go, it is intended to convey less the idea that the experience of a game is capable of being annexed into these particular abstracted notions, and more of a way of conveying how strong instances of engagement can be retroactively considered to have worked according to commonly-understood theories of how art works. Thus (one of) the provisions mentioned in (10).

33) Adam Ruch claimed in the article Romancing the Silicon Wafer that, on what he claims as the "ontological" level, a game character is, by definition, more "powerful" than a character in written fiction that takes the form of the novel. This is pretty intuitively wrong, for all the right reasons, I would hope. His given example is Ashley from Mass Effect, a character who accompanies Commander Shepard on their journey; Ashley, in any given playthrough of the game, may or may not fuck Shepard, depending on the choices Shepard (read: the player) makes in a series of dialogue trees relevant to unlocking the cinematic. To claim that this represents Ashley's "ontological power," here understood as an ability to choose, over and above, say, the choice of Juliet, is obviously bullshit. At best it is a parody of formalism gone completely awry, mistaking the exigencies present in one form over another for a pure ontological difference; more likely, given Ruch's claim that each playthrough of Mass Effect ought to be read, characterologically, as a completely different text, and his reading backwards the idea that character itself is simply a set of rules, not even qualitatively different than video game design, puts him in the position of arguing that material conditions simply do not exist in any way that effects arts/games creation or reception. Which I certainly hope he would agree is an absurd and indefensible position.

34) So, given (32) & (33), the relation this critique takes toward formalism is twofold; first, that it is not in a dictatorial relationship toward player experience, but does color retroactive reception/understanding in ways that are non-trivial, and must be engaged with; second, that it is absolutely necessary to view it as being in a dialectical relationship with material conditions at all points.

35) So, the "narrative level." Final Fantasy VII's most well known contribution to the narrative design of video games is in the moment generally referred to as the Death of Aeris, when one of the main characters in the party is killed (irrevocably) by the main antagonist. This breaks the rules of the world (dead characters are shown to be easily revived through use of a common item called a Phoenix Down), it breaks an implicit promise to the player (Aeris is heavily signposted as the player's romantic interest), and it marks the apotheosis of the thematic of the "bad vertical" more even than Midgar (Sephiroth, the antagonist, descends from the heights; Aeris' burial is into the depths of the water). Narratively, however, it is a straightforward example of that most time-honoured of all tropes: stuffing women in the refrigerator. So, in a game where the narrative is supposed to be paramount, why is this the defining moment? And more, why is it understood as a radical break?

36) Bryan Taylor's Kill Screen essay Save Aeris tracks early bulletin board responses to the death, in particular a hoax perpetrated in which a user said that there was a way to resurrect her. Aside from the bits where the author tries to psychoanalyse the fanbase or draw out belaboured lessons about the nature of grief or whatever, the article is well worth reading. What interests me in particular in this context however, is the levels at which the the fans considered it proper to respond.

37) The main, and most obvious, response of the fan communities was at the mechanical level. By building elaborate theories as to how to set the correct flags in place such that the event was either avoided or reversed, or even by navigating the source code of the game itself, many fans attempted (and still attempt) to reposition the other (narrative, thematic) levels of the game such that the mechanical level is primary, assuming that the proper manipulation of the given rule system must necessarily result in the fulfillment of their wish. The second, and slightly less obvious, method fans used was a series of petitions and complaints and threats to boycott the developer or publisher; these actions are fans' attempts to engage on the narrative level. Subsequent fanfiction or mods that reinstate Aeris into the canon engage on the same level, albeit with a different relationship to the primary text; where the petitioners could claim that their cause was the reinstatement of the original intent, fanfiction or mods have a relationship much more analogous to a piece of criticism than an act of fidelity. The question, then: why did fan response not occur at the thematic level?

38) Here is the other provision to (10), and how jRPGs are simultaneously the most and not at all familiar to novels as a form. To appropriate Ruch's misuse, the thematic level is the closest thing to an ontology that a video game has; it is the true stuff of the game, the Real, which exists independently of the creators and the players. Here, incidentally, is why Moss's article that Ruch attempted to critique is a much stronger piece of video game criticism than Ruch's; what Moss actually identifies is an issue with the thematic formulation of the game, and its complicity with material conditions of capitalism and patriarchy. Moss identifies the material and its effects; Ruch drags it back into a form of idealism and claims no effective action is there to be taken.

39) The jRPG is like a novel in that its themes are accessed primarily through linguistic or graphematic abstraction, which often takes the shape of narrative but is identifiable as both fractal instances and negative consequences of the narrative, in addition to other designed elements of mechanics and so on; it is totally unlike a novel in that the theme of a novel is absolutely never misrecognized as its ontology. Which is to say, the formal elements of the novel, and their relation to the work of the novel, as discussed in (20), are incommensurable with the formal elements of the video game, even in its jRPG iteration, and the work thereof.

40) This, of course, is just overstretching the claim/praise of the jRPG; no one claims it is a novel, just the closest to one that a video game can achieve. The point in (26) still stands, however; Interactive Fiction (or text adventures, or Choose Your Own Adventure Games) clearly remains closer. So why the absence of these kinds of games from the discussion?

41) The obvious answer is popularity; for a long time, the jRPG was one of the most popular genres of video games, while text adventures were distant memories. On top of that, text adventures also have a more equivocal claim to the status of game than jRPGs do. What is most important about this, though, is that the claim is both common and easily disproved, even in reference to the canon of the form in which the claim is taking place. Even if a gamer doesn't like them, or has never played one, everyone is aware of the existence of text adventures, and it doesn't take first-hand familiarity to get that they undermine the claim of the jRPG being the closest thing video games have to the novel. What this illustrates is that the claim was never a formal claim to begin with; it is not, that is to say, a claim that relies on the form to which it refers to be true. Instead it is a claim about the manipulation of formal elements, primarily by way of privileging certain frames; and this is why (10) calls out explicitly the thematic level, the privileging of which in the novel is inversely related to its privileging in the jRPG, as related to critique. Thus, it is ultimately nothing whatsoever alike.

42) Which returns us to (22), and the claims about the thematic metaphorization of setting in Final Fantasy VII as vertical/horizontal, and its centrality to genre-identification. All the elaboration here has failed to tie (6) to the thematic level; and so, assuming that the major design aesthetic of the jRPG is abstraction, and the thematic level is the privileged level of the jRPG, the theory at present has one huge hole in it. Unless the thematic is always already a form of abstraction, of course; but that would be really a very dull way to think about it.

43) So far, here are the claims about abstraction: a) the battles, being turn-based and menu-based, are abstractions of combat. b) the dialogue, being (theoretically) endlessly replicable, is an abstraction of conversation. c) the protagonist, being a character who falls within the tradition of literary representations that have been referred to herein as schizoid, in contravention of established tropes, is an abstraction of character. d) (a) & (b), composing the entirety of the play of the game, indicate that the games mechanical level is designed as a mode of navigating through abstraction. e) the narrative of the game, via (c) & (d), that is, the protagonist as abstraction of character and the games navigation through the means of abstraction, is therefore founded on the "character" "moving" through -- well, is it the world, or the "world"?

44) The claims of (24) & (22) can be seen on one level already as dealing with the thematic level as abstraction, of course, by extrapolating recurring motifs within the game (as in the setting of Midgar vs the world map as being establishments of, simultaneously, themes of verticality vs horizontality and industry vs. nature, and the conflation of the two and their subsequent splitting) and the further abstraction inherent in this by way of instrumentalizing these extrapolated ideas into the meta-thematic construction of genre as a whole. These do not describe the way that the game itself is designed with abstraction in mind, however, which is the point of thesis (6), however, so much as the way that we can subsequently abstract them. So, does the thematic level sit outside the bounds of design, as the Aeris article seems to suggest fans think, or is this just the point at which Final Fantasy VII fails in its design mission?

45) In the first visit to the Gold Saucer, Cloud and his friends are implicated in a series of murders and thrown into Corel Prison, in a bit of story which hides the allegorical core of the first part of the game in the shell of developing Barrett's character. You first visit North Corel, where Barrett is met with an ugly reception. Just before ascending to Gold Saucer, Barrett explains that he was instrumental in transforming Corel from a town that produced coal to a town that mined "Mako energy," a power source monopolized by the Shinra Corporation who you began the game fighting and which is derived from the "life energy" of the planet. You then ascend to the Gold Saucer, which is a place of intensively technologized capital investments, a sort of hybrid arcade/theme park where the only workers are service workers and the only activities are a variety of diversions on which you can spend a localized currency (GP, as opposed to gil, the universal currency of the world) in return for playing games to net you more of the localized currency or prizes. From here, the game throws you into the Corel Prison, site of the former Corel, situated in the middle of a vast desert, which is accessed by dropping you below the Gold Saucer. Corel was laid to waste by the failed Mako Factory, and the residents of the prison all appear to be former members of the working class, displaced by the economic shift and unnecessary to the operations of capital above them.

46) The Gold Saucer/Corel Prison moment is the games strongest intensification of the Bad/Industrial/Vertical thematic, and its Good/Natural/Horizontal corollary. Because of this intensification, however, it is also the moment at which the clean break between these two constellations becomes fraught. Gold Saucer is not industrial, but post-industrial, quite literally rising above the ashes of the industrial town below, which is also post-industrial, at least in that it was a place where there was industry, but no more. The Gold Saucer is also much more fun to play in, which necessarily troubles the Good/Bad split. Unlike in Midgar, the player does not have to trudge their way up; there is a convenient mode of conveyance by a shuttle attached to a rope, and within the park there are little themed holes to instantaneously transport you from one part to the other. On the other hand, Corel Prison is a small space fraught with incessant random battles with enemies who, even if they don't kill you, will almost certainly steal some of your shit; the surrounding vast desert will almost certainly kill anyone who enters it naively unless they luck into a random appearance by a Chocobo Cart, and the reward for beating the place is to watch Barrett's closest friend and the father of his adopted daughter commit suicide. By way of intensifying the thematics -- that is, by pushing them past their pedagogical use and insisting on a fidelity to the themes themselves -- their strictly-delimited equivalencies begin to become unmoored, and their slow movement towards inversion (discussed in (24)) begins. This unmooring then begins to drive the narrative tension of the game as well, creating a backdrop of displacement which is expressed in the development of characters (Yuffie's arc, as we learn that her thieving is a consequence of her difficult upbringing in a wartorn region; Red XIII's arc, as he reconciles with his family and his status as the last of his species) and the overall movement of the narrative, in which Cloud discovers his factual past and overcomes the threat Sephiroth poses to the planet.

47) This recombinatory approach to the thematics is both of and against the Fantasy genre. I've touched on the idea of genre as a machine for its own reproduction elsewhere, but only ever elliptically; what I mean by this, on at least one level, is to push against the understanding of genre as neutral and taxonomical, and to propose a definition which equally accounts for the critical and marketing and productive categories it is deployed by. Genre, when it becomes identifiable in a collection of texts, is the establishment of sufficient means of production such that it itself may be infinitely reproducible. The means themselves differ depending on the utterers structural position; for the marketer, the means are a buying audience, for the critic, an identifiable set of tropes, for the producer, a constellation of things tied sufficiently to an extrinsic meaning.

48) This definition from (47) presents a possible refutation of the claim in (22) that genre is of the setting, specifically with reference to the marketers usage. However, this is a problem with the rhetoric more than the respective claims; it must, therefore, be clarified that the point of proposing this synthesizing move is also in part to undermine any clear distinction between the levels; because the point of all the usages is ultimately the reproduction of the term, the specific metric by which it is deemed reproducible is not central to the term itself.

49) To return to the first sentence of (47), then. It is of Fantasy in that it follows the general trajectory of the Fantasy novel, which establishes a close relationship between the themes and the world at the outset, and then to create narrative tension often relies on the disruption of this relationship; it is against it in that it, until the bullshit final scene of the final cinematic, does not resolve that tension with a return to the initial closeness, but a continuing sense of disjuncture abated by the employment of the "hero saves the world from certain destruction and barely escapes with his life" trope. Again, this quasi-subversion does nothing to undermine the genre as such, because it is completely capable of being more grist for the mill.

50) One could reasonably claim, given this set of critical tools, that genre fiction, and especially Fantasy, provides the least-bloated form of aesthetic economy available to literature. That is kind of beside the point here though, so I'll kind of just let it dangle.

51) It is the dual establishment of this definition of genre and this understanding of genre, and especially Fantasy, as world-as-thematic that lays the groundwork by which we can analyze the first Gold Saucer/Corel Prison sequence to reveal the ways in which the overarching design philosophy of the jRPG applies to the thematic level as well.

52) The easiest way to make the point I will be attempting to prove for the rest of this essay is to simply say two words: "world map." Readers of a certain inclination can, if they feel comprehension, stop here and lose nothing in what follows.

53) By constructing a world, as seen through the thematic intensification of the Gold Saucer/Corel Prison microcosm, along the lines of thematic identifications, Final Fantasy VII operates according to the reproductive economy of the fantastic, positioning itself not simply as an hermetic text capable of being interrogated for messages but complete unto itself, but also as a text which partakes of and comments critically upon an established tradition. This is the case, of course, in any non-idealized text; it is important insofar as it offers, by the means of this particular economy, an opening by which to analyze its management of scarcity.

54) The desert around Corel Prison, divided as it is into discrete identical areas, is itself an obvious abstraction, created by both generic and technological limitations, which posits the desert as both iterative and boundless; moving from within an area to the boundaries repositions the player into an identical environment, a difference which is the same. This is also the case, albeit in a very different way, and towards very different ends, with the various video games available in the Gold Saucer, but especially the theme park ride available in the Speed Zone. By creating a space defined from within as unable to be exited except according to its own logic of the exception -- the end of the ride as reaching its beginning; the random appearance of a Chocobo-driven carriage in the desert -- the truth of the world-as-"world" can be made explicit in a non-didactic move.

55) Insofar as the abstract is merely a relative expression of the non-concrete, and the category of real abstractions is the bridge which connects the binary by way of material effects, the final claim can be made: the privileged status of the thematic falls not within the category of ontology, but of being the real abstraction, the bridge by which the various abstract mechanics of the genre, and its reproductive economy, communicates with the concrete expressions which the game itself codifies.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

A/Functional Definition: Sanitarium Review

Sanitarium isn't a very good game. Largely this is the fault of its narrative, which appropriates certain aesthetic tropes from Lovecraft but employs them in the service of a very bland psychological horror, which undermines their materialist basis and instead positions them as dull, overdetermined psychologistic moves. This might, for all I know, be an effective way of evoking horror/terror/dread; as affects, these are pretty foreign to me, despite my appreciation for the genre that takes its name from one. Given that the question of “how scary might you find it?” is beyond my remit, then, let's continue.

Quickly; when I say “overdetermined,” what I mean is that the structural components that give rise to a particular aesthetic object within a text employ the object in such a way as to overwhelm any valence that it itself might possess. Generally these are also certain cultural signifiers that come prepackaged with strong significations; the clown being the most obvious that comes to mind. Because of the strength of meaning that is culturally impressed on clowns, often in paradoxical ways, their appearance within a text is thus always already marked by an excess of meaning; for a text to then overdetermine them would mean that it forces, through the application of pressures created by everything from the narrative's movement to the mechanical logic to the methods of characterization, them to become the receptacles of the various and often contradictory “meanings” of all of these various components, pinning them down as the explicative metaphor or keystone of the text. I'm probably using it wrong.

Roughly, Sanitarium is the story of Max, who wakes up in an asylum that is mostly abandoned, unaware of his name and swathed in bandages. He travels through a town of deformed children, various iterations of the asylum (and distinct spaces within it), and, as his (dead) sister, a comic book character, and an avatar of an Aztec God, through a circus, a Hive of intelligent insectoid creatures, and an Aztec village.

These are all fecund environments, of course, fully capable of being engaged with in interesting and complicated ways to create deep play-experiences. Unfortunately, they are all hokily telegraphed or retroactively justified by reference to the unfolding narrative; Max, it turns out, was traumatized as a child by the death of his sister, and his inability to comply with her last wish (bring her a doll that her father had won her at the circus the year before); as an adult, he is a head researcher working on a cure for a virus called DNAV which exclusively kills children. He works under Dr. Morgan, who he met at med school, and whose drug, HOPE, prolongs the life of DNAV patients without actually curing them. By the end of the game, you learn that the visions you've been playing through represent a drugged and delirious Max who, having barely survived a car wreck after Morgan cut his brakes, is fighting off the effects of a drug Morgan injected into his IV to silence him before the DNAV cure comes to light. The idealism here runs deep, and the cribbing of Lovecraft is incoherent; not only are we made to believe that everything material here is nothing but a psychological projection, but that, deeply confusingly, the way to resist being poisoned while in a coma is to symbolically confront and overcome childhood traumas. That this overcoming is done by the successful completion of a series of puzzles is, of course, simply a feature of the genre; at the same time, though, it becomes a metonymic replication of the specific mode of reasoning of the game. Reductive, instrumentalized, over-reliant on the epiphanic and masterful, but at the same time rife with the mundane, patient drudgery of trial and error.

This is the universe of the conspiracy theorist, whose analysis of power is locked into the same reductive mindset of the puzzle-solver; that the main narrative tension of the game – why you want Max to wake up, why he wants to wake up, sooner rather than later – is an enactment of prominent conspiracies related to HIV research is much less coincidence than it is symptom. When the logic that undergirds everything from the genre to the mechanics is conspiracist, an attempt to tell a story with a more nuanced analysis of power is bound to be dissonant, at least. But then, this is already a game which tries desperately to allegorize Lovecraft, so perhaps dissonance is the order of the day.

Probably my favorite aspect of Sanitarium was that you were unable to run. The fact that your character is slow as shit was a constant source of simultaneous frustration and amusement for me; on the one hand, this nod to realism is utterly weird in a game which is very uninterested in being realistic outside its own logic. On the other hand, the tight allegorization actually allows for this to make sense in terms of level design, by allowing the architecture of an area or its layout to collapse a variety of (cultural, outward-looking) meanings and (narrative, inward-looking) significances into very few spaces. This means that the levels can be sufficient to both their internal logic and the requirements of the narrative progression without being particularly large; and, on top of that, the use of exposition through space-triggered cinematics moves the weight of the overarching narrative even further outside of the mechanical. And the level design is very good; even the annoying multi-layered maze in the Aztec portion is handled as well as that sort of thing can be, meaning that the frustration with the slowness of the character's movement is exclusively a symptom of familiarity with other games. You aren't actually wasting any time by moving so slowly; you just expect that because you are playing a video game means you are going to be running all the time. And because of the frustration of that expectation, you (or at least I) end up actually spending more time taking in the level design of the game than you naturally would while simply playing, which ultimately is easily the richest aspect of the game.

Generally, I think, this sort of totalizing integration of disparate parts is held up as the triumph of a text, and I understand how that could be appealing to a potential player. The problem with this game, as I see it, is that this totalizing is done in the service of a specific, and ultimately uninteresting, mode of valorization; it is less an integration of disparate things into a compelling system, and more a collapse into equivalencies, in an allegorical and metaphorical register, toward the didactic reveal, resulting in a monovalent text with a symptomatically underdeveloped analysis of its components, specifically institutional power, meaning, in the end, it is more involved in closing off possibilities than opening them up.

This is where a certain reading of Lovecraft's employment of “madness” actually makes the misappropriation of his aesthetics into an harmonic, rather than dissonant engagement; I claimed here (comment #5) that the consistent use of “madness” in Lovecraft actually undermines his apparently amoral universe by reintegrating it into an implicitly moralistic framework. Rather than being a simple expression of the absolute indifference of the universe, madness is a moral category which is diagnosed by power that Lovecraft fails to engage with; this is symptomatic of his complicity with the economic power which informs his racism. That the biographical Lovecraft was not privileged with the material benefits such complicity promises is beside the point; his enactment of them is tied inextricably to material structures whose indifference to the individual is much more profound than the universe's indifference, at least in terms of lived existence, and it is only by reading his stories through this lens that they offer anything of interest. This is Lovecraft against himself, of course, but the way that his stories avoid the reproduction of a conspiracist analysis of power makes this reading much more compelling; there might be cults and cabals and hidden knowledge in Lovecraft, but it is not the product of machinations. It is the conflation of accidents and fears and ambitions and stuff, in a purely materialist sense; Sanitarium, no matter how totalizing it is as a text, appropriates the results without understanding the importance of the method, and ends up being very slight because of it.