A New Challenger Approaches
As the weather in Pittsburgh was characteristically apocalyptic, raining ice shards caught in torrential wind dervishes, my friend Emily and I were spending the afternoon indoors fighting each other on my Wii. As our video game avatars were hurtling through some coloring book-cum-nightmare void, the screen suddenly became obscured by a giant dog within the game. Although we could hardly see the princess and the buoyant puff with which we were battling, we continued, unfazed, to waggle our Wiimotes, angrily showering the remainder of the screen with glittery sparks. As the timer was approaching the zero hour of our melee, the level demanded that we remain under an umbrella while it began to rain. I kept my cool and complied, but my adversary’s nonplus won out. As a reward I tripled in size, giving me the advantage I needed to swallow my opponent and send the princess hurtling into the infinity of off screen.
When the match ended, I was given just the opportunity I needed to reflect on how bizarre what had just occurred really was, even by video game standards. One must take a deep breath after saying, “Oh, it’s nothing. Sometimes a Nintendog will do that and you can’t see a thing,” referring of course to the giant canine which had confounded our fight minutes earlier. The game, of course, was the fantastic new release Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and the fight was by no means abnormal. After playing this title for several matches, you will see something like a hedgehog bat a dinosaur into a pinball bumper, and you will not bat an eyelash. This is precisely what is troubling. Our reality-ideal should be screaming in the face of this nonsense, shouldn’t it? Instead, it remains placidly silent.
Video games have never been traditionally grounded in anything reminiscent of the world in which we live. However, there has always been, to the best of the programmers and writers’ abilities, an internal logic to their play. Even if you are an alien shooting lasers at gods, there is a rational undergirding of the affair. The rules are changed from the quotidian ones we are familiar with, but the elegant system still remains. Enter the distinction between verisimilitude and realism. The former indicates a similarity to the real world and is heartily jettisoned in the pixelated universe of the joystick. The latter refers to the coherence and fullness of the virtual world presented whether it is one of sorcery or one of schoolteachers.
While video games will always adopt varying levels of verisimilitude (for every Pokemon, there is a Grand Theft Auto), the Wii presents a novel challenge to the conventional consciousness, and that is an attack on realism. With its wealth of outlandish titles (WarioWare, Mario Party, Super Smash Bros., etc.) and the addition of motion-sensing technology, the Wii may very well usher in a new era of absurdism. Furthermore, while the absurd has been a frequent bedfellow of the fine arts for well over a century, an attack on realism by video games could have unique effects due to the informal nature of the console compared to the theatre or the art museum. Even literature and film operate at a greater remove than video games, as the experience of a film or a book is distinctly marked and quantified by credits or covers. Video games, however, are becoming ever more social enterprises, sublimating into casual interaction rather than operating in the reserved spaces of viewership or readership.
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A successfully absurdist video game should, in theory, operate like a successfully absurdist piece of theatre. While there will always be sophomoric attempts at the feat, usually involving idiotic projections, silly costumes, and dialogue that makes Joyce read like Goodnight Moon, a truly great absurdist piece will operate nonsense so skillfully that, by the end, the viewer forgets that what they are watching is absolutely illogical. If you have ever seen an adroit production of Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, you have been privileged to absurdism at its most effective. With dialogue comprised of a potpourri of phrases from an English primer, at no point is any speech an appropriate response to any other, and the actors’ lines never have even the least relevance to the current situation. However, by the final curtain, the ostensible babble begins to take on a certain magical coherence, and although it is absolute non-sequitur, the audience’s awareness of the absurdity disappears. The question of whether or not all human action is just as meaningless as the piecemeal dialogue becomes prominent, the only difference being that we are used to this “natural” state of absurdity.
Super Smash Bros.: Brawl operates, though less ostensibly, in a remarkably similar fashion. First, consider the general gameplay. Although there is a skill factor which will be discussed later, battles ride largely on the obtainment and use of items which arbitrarily fall from the heavens. (I know that “hardcore” players of the franchise and official tournaments turn off these addenda. However, such matches are exceptional and constructed as such to minimize the luck factor. Therefore, they are not paradigmatic and will not be considered.) Often these bits of deus ex machina are too small to be individually discerned, appear in large groups that hide the individual members, or randomly generate a result. The effect of this mania is that one’s actions can never be surely tied to a given result within a battle. What sends your opponent into oblivion once will set you ablaze the next time. Two such items, pokeballs and assist trophies, call upon a random character from Nintendo history to aid you (or sometimes impair you—damn Nintendog). The outcomes of these items range from a giant polygonal head firing shards at your opponent to a fish flopping uselessly. Such features are coupled with a damage percentile instead of a health bar. A character “dies” when they are hit hard enough to be launched into the recesses of the stage. Such an event is directly proportional to how high the damage percentage of the sendee is. However, even at maximally high percentages, although likely, such a finish is not ensured.
Furthermore, the atypical control scheme serves to supplement the random aspects of gameplay in the service of the game’s absurdity. While most fighters require that the player have not only an encyclopedic knowledge of arrow and button combinations but also the finely trained and dexterous thumbs of a virtuoso mbira artist, Super Smash Bros. features three simple kinds of attacks (normal, special, and smash) that are combined with a single direction key for various effects. The Wii version adds shake sensitivity to trigger a smash attack by batting the controller. This ease allows for a style of control in which the machinations that remind you that you are playing a game dissipate into a wild and rhythmic waving and clicking. This is not to say that Brawl promotes button mashing. Rather, it still demands skill, but in a much more organic fashion that allows the artifice of the game’s virtuality to be forgotten.
However, the most emblematic and effectively absurd feature of the game is its insanely deep content. The massive depth sets this generation’s Smash Bros. apart from its comparably deficient predecessors. With thirty-five playable characters and not a clone in the bunch, the game intentionally attacks the alterity that most fighters encourage, the identifying of oneself with one of the fighters. Instead, by demanding that you play in the single-player modes as almost every one of the avatars, Brawl actively disassociates identity, splitting the gamer so many different ways that which character they are playing as begins to blur. Sure, hardcore Brawlers will have their favorites, but the game is balanced so meticulously that it is almost impossible to beat every opponent with one fighter. (No matter your skill with Bowser, he will lose to all but the worst Sheiks). Additionally, the rampant regurgitation of the past few decades of Nintendo obscurity for the levels, characters, and multitude of other references forms an exemplar pastiche. As the individual figures are stripped of any meaning other than that they are branded Nintendo, the clarion cry of post-modernity is crisply articulated.
As foreshadowed in the discussion of absurdist drama, Brawl engages the viewer with its unrealism only to have it eventually withdraw. After logging only an hour on the title, gamers will forget that the internal logic of Brawl is deeply incoherent—why am I alternately punished or rewarded for the same action, and why can a five-by-five pixel “bomb” do as much damage as a windup punch from a gigantic gorilla? In turn, the systems of logic in all games (and life in general) come into question as perhaps just as nonsensical as that of the Wii’s whimsical fighter. Maybe our expectation that the same action should produce the same outcome, all things being equal, is a naïve one. Perhaps the singularity of identity we commonly cling to is only more familiar, not more accurate, than the manifold ego which Brawl forces upon its gamer. Could the popular notion of meaning be an artificial one, what we call meaning actually reducible to a common response to vacuous icons and brand names?
If such questions seem unnecessarily abstruse for a game about electrocuting foxes until they fall off a waterfall, consider the Wii as a more complete phenomenon. Nintendo’s underpowered little console has soundly outsold both the hardware-perfectionist PlayStation 3 and the ever-more-photoreal Xbox 360. Although largely a factor of its lower price, Wii sales demonstrate a public willing to accept the absurdity of its bizarre control schemes and insane titles (any society in which WarioWare: Smooth Moves can receive both good reviews and can fiscally thrive is one which has few reservations about chucking realism). Furthermore, as the seventh generation console wars have branded the Wii as the party-gaming machine, for the first time casual social gaming has marked out its own plot. As gaming becomes ever less rarefied and more integrated into daily interactions, the repercussions of virtual evolution will be more broadly felt.
What future does this suggest for the cultures that have embraced the Wii? The Wii marks the first fully successful penetration of the frenetic absurdity of J-Pop culture into the Western world. Japanese pop culture has, for some time now, featured a hyper-variability and obsessive fixation on fads. In the native parlance, there is a word, “Otaku,” which designates the tremendous energy devoted to cultural (often pop) entities. It is not uncommon to see “cosplayers” casually dress up as their favorite anime characters, photos of seas of schoolgirls blazoned with Hello Kitty merchandise are plentiful, and celebrities are devoured by fandom. However, such mania is rarely focused; Japanese pop-culture thrives on the lightning-fast recycling of its idols.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl is a wonderful standard bearer of this commodified and encultured absurdity to the West. Probing reality with its rampant whimsy, the feature-rich game exemplifies the J-Pop sensibility of excess, while its archaeology of Nintendo’s history with a new coat of paint is exceptionally representative of J-Pop culture mining. As the fastest selling Nintendo game in American history, Brawl may very well herald the collapse of the West’s reluctance to succumb to the merry absurdism of Eastern pop culture.