Egads! Return from hiatus!

November 21, 2008

As the last few weeks of the semester ramp up and finals plus term papers are just around the corner, things have been pretty slow on the site. Sorry my few but loyal readers. I have not been good to you. But I shall return! In the mean times here is a little presentation I wrote up for class to wet your pallet.

We have arrived to a point where interactive media as we know it is over 60 years old and the video game as we know it is over 30 years old. Only now the gaming culture has not only embraced a return to retrogames—and by that I mean the sense of revere gamers have for products in the vein of systems like the Commodore 64, the Atari 2600, and classic arcade games—but also the emergence of these kinds of neo-retro games. Examples today are Pac-Man Championship Edition, Super Street Fighter II Turbo: HD Remix, Bionic Commando: Rearmed, Arcanoid DS, or Space Invaders Extreme. These are games that take the foundational programming of the original series and update it with modern design techniques or graphical improvements or both. It is a reintroduction of a classical game with the sensibilities of modern audience expectations. This is opposed to the retro which is merely a re-release of a classic series as it was produced back during its time.

Mega Man 9 which was released this past September is peculiar in that it resides somewhere in-between the retro and neo-retro. Here we have a game that continues not only the aesthetic of Mega Man which was released in 1987, both in its graphical technology but in its design as well. The game also lacks many of the design evolutions of subsequent games in the series. This includes certain moves in Mega Man’s repertoire such as the “Charge-shot” or “Power-slide.” But it also diverts from the recent neo-retro trend of the series as indicated by Mega Man: Powered UP! which is a remake of the original Mega Man with a graphical overhaul and also the purely retro trend indicated by the release of Mega Man: Anniversary Collection.

But what is really strange, is the limitations that Mega Man creator Kenji Infune, placed upon the game’s conception. Returning to the 8-bit graphics the game maintains the limitations of a classic Famicom/Ninendo game. In an interview with producer Hironobu Takeshita, he reflects on the development of the game where Ifune had butt heads with the staff whom was making not only the graphics but the level design of the game too complex. But even more jarring, is inclusion of Legacy mode. Legacy mode is automatically turned on when the game is first loaded, and what it does is it turns on many of the graphical bugs in the game such as map slowdown or sprite flickering. But what it also does is open up many of the most well publicized glitches apparent in previous Mega Man games. Some of these glitches will not appear unless sought out and some may accidently appear because of the limitations of the game.

It is here that I want to that I want to draw the connection of Mega Man 9 within interactive media into the realm of film theory. And to justify this connection I want to touch upon the subject of remediation. David Bolter has written on the subject of New Media as a remediation of the old. When we look at products that not only come out of the realm of computer games or web 2.0 we directly relate these with familiar media sources of the past. In the case of video games, the focus lies on reproducing a cinema experience. But why should this merely rest upon subjects of reception, response, and immersion? And this is why I propose to integrate the theoretical approach of psychoanalysis towards the medium.

Interactive media differs towards cinema in a very distinct manner in that the media itself is “reactionary.” Chris Crawford’s published book The Art of Computer Game Design discusses this aspect where he contracts two forms of interactive media: the game and the puzzle. Whereas the puzzle remains static, the game by contrast changes with the player’s actions. The notion of the puzzle relates to cinema as a static product where the interaction remains much more internal for the audience in regards to the film compared to a more external interaction between the game and the player. But I would still argue that this variance in game reaction is superficial in that it is illusionary just as cinema. And therefore, as we may discuss cinema as attuned to a sort of dream, so can we do the same forvideo games as well.

This is where I would like to introduce the concept of secondary revision in terms of the game. Following Ian Bogost’s inspection in Persuasive Games, video games are considered as compact reflections of our interactions in society. We create internal games in how we function in everyday life and video games compact certain types of interactions in each game. This can also relate to the duo relationship of the subject with the unconscious when we dream while we find ourselves dreaming. Christian Metz points out that a film spectator is less invested in the image than the dreamer because the real images presented are “perceived” less real in a film. The actual perceptible object is the film itself. While watching a movie, secondary revision continuously functions on an unconscious level becoming intimately invested in the image on screen but maintaining a divisional gulf for the separation of the viewer’s status as a subject, the eye, to the object, the film. Secondary revision occurs, of course, when we realize we are aware of the object as a film similar to when we realize when we are in the act of dreaming.

The same mentality occurs if we divulge into interactive media. Even though the player becomes more of an active participate in the realm of the game, the premise remains the same. So looking at the model of secondary revision let us investigate more. The dreamer dreams while the Other maintains the realism of the dream and censors the content protecting the dreamer from ever becoming aware of his unconscious. Once the dream becomes too intense or confronts the dreamer he realizes he is in a dream and either awakes or begins lucid dreaming. It is here the process of secondary revision reveals itself as the subject attempts to recuperate the contents of the unconscious into plausible coherency. Film as an impression of reality suggests this kind of liveliness even though it is a recorded archive. This also applies towards the video game as its existence as a product is more or less identical.

In the case of Mega Man 9, if you look at it as a sort of live progression of re-designing and redistribution of the same content you see a kind of secondary revision. As games progress, the developer not only improves the design of the game, but closes out many of the glitches inherent in the programming that break the immersion of the game. These not only include graphical deficiencies but also technical ones as well. As with any sort of programming, bugs in the system break the function of the program. You would expect if you install a program it becomes invisible and functions on its terms. When there is a glitch or a bug it breaks the impression of the product’s purpose. If you look at the evolution of Mega Man it follows the same path as any other gaming franchises progressing in both technical and graphical improvement.

At this point I discuss secondary revision as form of editing the text in relation to the concept of the glitch. If a glitch becomes integrated into the text of the game, it becomes part of the programming and therefore preserves the impression of the game. This has happened before in fighting games such as Street Fighter where the glitch created attack combos for players to implement into their fighting technique. This glitch of stringing combos has become the corner-stone for fighting games since. This same concept applies in secondary revision, particularly in lucid dreaming where the trauma within the dream can allow the dreamer to maintain dreaming and therefore incorporate the awareness of dreaming within the dream.

But Mega Man 9’s bugs do not fit into this model as they for one are not integral components of the gameplay, but were previously fixed in the series and then reintroduced in this instance. So what we have is an Other, in this context Ifune, subverting the normalcy of secondary revision by purposefully allowing the disruption of immersion while not integrating it into the gameplay. But I want to emphasize that these glitches not forced upon the player but open to confrontation by the player. And therefore, the discovery of the glitch becomes a shared desire of both the Other and the player. This is the direction I want to approach my answer to this conundrum which relates back to Lacan which is the desire of the desire of the Other.



  1. Welcome back from your hiatus! I enjoyed your thoughts on Mega Man 9. It seems to me that when designers purposely play with the formal ways games deliver content and meaning, we have reached a very exciting point in the evolution of the medium. Such things are only possible once the existing system has established itself in our consciousness in a way that invites a sort of meta-playfulness.

    I realize your close reading of an apparently straightforward arcade-style game could be seen as over-analysis (an accusation I’ve received over the years), but I greatly appreciate what you’ve done here. Thanks!

  2. Thanks! I was afraid that I had lost all of my readers! I will be continuing my analysis on Mega Man 9 in a future publication, but focusing on a different aspect of gamer response. I doubt the majority of readers are interested in this theoretical and philosophical escapades into the game space.

    But yes, close readings are always a risk alienating yourself from the masses. Luckily, I’m in a medium where play and childish glee can keep me grounded for the most part!

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