Dedication is all you need

There’s a good post over at ‘…and what will be left of them?’ by Phil Knight that talks about Gurdjieff’s concept of “sexual energy”, which is similar to Freud’s concept of the libido. Like Freud, Gurdjieff thought sexual energy could be used to pursue non-sexual goals (Freud called this process displacement and the result sublimation). What Gurdjieff considered an abuse of sexual energy was using it to fuel the activities of the “thinking centre” (philosophy, science, politics etc), the “emotional centre” (religion, abstinence, asceticism etc) or the “movement centre” (sport and other planned physical activity along with a tendency to “create various records”). When sexual energy was used to fuel these activities it created “a certain particular vehemence, and together with it, the USELESSNESS of the work in question. Neither the thinking nor the emotional nor the moving centres can ever create anything USEFUL with the energy of the sex centre. This is an example of the ‘abuse of sex’”. Knight humourously uses the truly useless Guinness Book of World Records as the perfect example of this.

Last night I was trying to complete some of the trials on Lords of Shadow. Some are pretty easy, but others are enragingly difficult; working against the clock, one false move and you’ve failed, that sort of thing. It’s very easy to see the desire – the need, it feels like – to complete this kind of challenge as being fuelled by sexual energy.

It’s also very easy to see the uselessness of it. Not the simplistic dismissal of reading books, watching movies, listening to music, playing sports or playing videogames as a “waste of time”, but useless in that it is undertaken stubbornly and for nothing. It’s difficult and not pleasurable and the reward is next to nil. It almost feels like we try to complete these aggravating tasks in videogames just because we’ve already started.

Really the only reason – apart from “because it’s there” – is to get on the high score list, or make every achievement thumbnail visible. This is exactly the same impulse behind gaining the record for “Largest collection of ‘Do Not Disturb’ hotel signs” or “Heaviest weight pulled with eye sockets”. It’s painful and pointless but you did it! and that’s it.

What is interesting about The Guinness Book of World Records – and Knight points this out in his post – is that it was founded and maintained by the McWhirter twins, who held right-wing Libertarian ideals. (As the Guardian obituary for Norris puts it, “He was also a fighter for ‘personal freedom’ causes – which almost always turned out to favour the political right.”) It’s a neat fit: an ideology that emphasises individual freedom and achievement, no matter how destructive or self-defeating, and a book that could stand as a monument to such things.

It almost sounds like I’m about to blame my inability to complete videogame challenges on them being too “right-wing”! Of course personal goals are valuable, despite how much that sounds like management-speak. The problem with the sort of tricky videogame challenges I’m talking about (the game version of “Okay, now do it using your eye sockets”) is that they aren’t fun or interesting; they make me angry and that anger is useless, impotent. At least North Korean gymnasts are working themselves to death for the pleasure of their “glorious leader”. Who or what do we do it for?


Review: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

3D Castlevania games have a bad reputation, so to persuade people to buy it, the makers of Lords of Shadow insist that this new 3D Castlevania is a “reboot”. Creatively, this reboot comes in the form of an arch pastiche. There is not one original idea in this entire game. Often the game feels like a parody, the type that makes jokes merely by explicit references to other art works, Scary Movie style. The dialogue is a case in point. Big name actors phone-in choice lines such as “You are the one” and “We are one and the same, you and I”. Certain boss fights are shamelessly stolen from a much better game (Shadow of the Colossus); there’s a child vampire straight out of Anne Rice; goblins and trolls from The Lord of the Rings and so on and on. The only elements that allows it to stand out come from the twentysomething year old Castlevania source, which, seeing as this only became a Castlevania game in mid-development, isn’t saying much.

It’s not all bad, though. When its not getting too new-age pretty, the scenery is very nice. The early levels have definitely been cribbed from Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, but this time the appropriation is done well and feels more like the Lord of the Rings of Peter Greenaway’s Water Wrackets than Peter Jackson’s plodding, chromophobic gloom. While I have a soft spot for ancient bogs, ruined castles and the like, there’s no denying that the art style is straight out of the most clichéd high-fantasy schlock. And because of the beefcake heroes, the violence and the general “bigger is better” mentality, the whole thing has the slick, dazzling veneer of the 1980s.

And then there’s the Belmont, wearing what looks like a clay wig on his head. He really doesn’t look good at all; his bulky armour gives him the silhouette of a fat man in a dressing gown. Above all else he’s a bore. I don’t care about him, his quest, his dead wife or his stubble. What might have been more interesting would have been to make Pan the player character. Pan is a variation on the god, taking here the form of a large yak on it’s hind legs. He’s only occasionally in the game, helping Belmont every now and then and transforming into large animals, but I was far more interested in him than the same broody player character from every game ever. He looks more interesting, he’s better designed – his bulkiness is far more convincing – and the concept of a warrior yak sorcerer fighting Dracula sells itself.

Oh yeah, Dracula. He’s in this game isn’t he? Yes and no. Without spoiling it – although anyone who cares enough about the storyline by the end would have to be the kind of person who is impressed by a light switch – the whole game is a prologue to the next one, the real Castlevania game.

Overall, changing the baroque anime style of the Metroidvania 2D platformers was a good idea, but merely swapping it for the same old high fantasy of The Lord of the Rings is a let down. The chain whip “combat cross” thing makes the fighting passably entertaining, but the real enjoyment comes from exploring the environments. The camera is controlled by the game, which is sometimes irritating, but this means that the game can hide things from you, making the discovery of hidden areas all the more satisfying. If you can ignore the “Did somebody order A LARGE HAM?” voice acting, the mind-numbingly unoriginal plot, the unattractive character models and one unforgivably dire Portal reference, then you might want to spend some time with this. It’s probably the best 3D Castlevania game, but a 3D Castlevania minus Castlevania.

Perversion of videogames

The ‘broken’ game. A commonplace phrase of games journalism. It sounds both childish (“it’s broken, Mummy!”) and strict (the idea that difference is a fault – a fault that causes the game to be useless).

What is broken in a ‘broken’ game? Usually the controls, it seems. Which is a fair complaint; if the player can’t manoeuvre the player character properly and if this causes progression through the game to be very difficult or impossible, then the player might feel that the game can’t be played and is therefore broken. But ‘broken’ is also used to describe videogames that use control systems that the player is unfamiliar with, along with other potential frustrations arising from narrative, dialogue, style, etc. What is central though, is that if a game can’t be beaten then it’s broken.

Snatches from other media: “… for he has always been like that, even as a child, during games: not exactly serious, but so committed to the game that, in the midst of battle, he would be overcome by a sort of stupor at the moment he should have won, when he had outmanoeuvred everyone else, and would find himself beaten when he was the real victor. He would then walk off on his own, apparently quite pleased and, leaning against a tree, gaze into space.” (Philippe Sollers, The Park) Once we’ve topped the leader board, what next? A zen-like contemplation? A hazy high? Post-orgasmic depression? When we set all meaning to the simplicity of winning/losing, is it surprising that we feel extreme frustration when we fail and listless when we succeed?

If the fixed videogame is where everything works towards facilitating competition, the broken videogame might be where competition doesn’t work. It would be a perversion of videogames to play for nothing, not even for the vanity of score or completion. To play with playing itself.

Film and fiction have central conflict theory and the three-act structure, music verse/chorus/verse and the orchestra. Videogames have the technobabble of ‘broken’, as if the videogame is a circuit that won’t work if all the plot points aren’t connected or if the controls are unusual. Getting frustrated with the movie/novel/song/game is always thought of as bad.

But frustration is a necessary part of learning and flirts with satisfaction. “If we want to talk of a right to pursue happiness there needs to be a prior right, as it were, to feel frustration; to be able to bear and to bear with a sense of what is lacking in one’s life. And not simply because frustration makes satisfaction possible in the way that hunger can make a meal delicious. But because frustration and satisfaction do not only or always have a logical, a causal, a pragmatic relationship with one another.” (Adam Phillips)

To pervert the dominant logic of videogames – whether as players or designers – is to allow for videogames to spread out, to gloop over even more areas of life. It’s already happened and happening, of course. Videogames took us by the hand and ran at an exhilarating speed, ran to places we’d never thought of, places from which everything looks different. This speed was like the speed of childhood, when an hour feels like an unbearably long time to wait, when everything changes in a year and every year. Now the speed is that of late adolescence, when everything is painful and boring at the same time, when everything matters, a time when suddenly you realise what and where you are and question that realisation at the same time.

So what we might need is videogames of a particular type of difficulty and frustration; not difficult in the sense of precise, learned-by-rote movements, but difficult for being outside of what we expect, frustrating for not being fixed. The common dismissal of difference as a mistake is the largest obstacle to this. A perversion of winning and pianola performances opens the way for weird, wrong, broken videogames.