[11 January 2011]
In his essay “A Note on Time in The Purloined Letter” (in The Purloined Poe), Canadian Lacanian (say that three times fast) psychoanalyst Francois Peraldi describes an odd moment of ‘psychotic’ disjuncture, where the regular ebb and flow of the outside world is suddenly overwhelmed by an enclosed subjective loop – psychosis as an unmeasurable state of timeless existence:
“During this kind of temporal sequence, it is worth noting that its duration can be guessed or measured only afterward. In other words, while caught in the imaginary, subjects are trapped in an unmeasurable, monotonous time. They know that time exists, but they are not aware of its duration. It resembles the kind of time psychotic subjects are sometimes trapped in for longer or shorter periods, which they can measure, and always do measure, only once they are capable of symbolizing their experience.”
When I first read that, I was pretty sure he was talking about the Commodore 64, the eight-bit home computer introduced by Commodore International in January 1982. Those long childhood days spent bathed in the harsh 16-colour glare that radiated from the innocuously polite beigeness of the machine itself, where the player knew that ‘time existed’, but was only aware of its actual duration in those insufferable minutes waiting for the damn thing to load. And, when it finally did, and if the game didn’t decide to freeze on start-up or throw you forcibly back to the original ‘blue screen of death’, the player could finally abandon the pettiness of the ticking clock and, like the monomaniacal Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick ‘need no sustenance but what’s in himself’.
For games today, the compulsion seems to be to recreate the world. Or, if not the world, then at least a world, tweaked, but still something we might be able to step into relatively unchanged. It’s a reasonable enough pursuit, if slightly masochistic, and I applaud it. We could do with another. However, it was something that the modest 64kb of memory in the 8-bit C64 could never hope to achieve; even the later Commodore 128, boasting a remarkable 128kb of memory, struggled with the task.
So, where modern games can be like stepping through a portal into a new realm, the C64 seemed to present the world compressed and twisted into a never-ending tunnel of recurring symbols, driving blips, and repetitive interactions; not so much a different world as a different mindset. Meaningless flashing dots became monomaniacal fixations, the nimbleness of the player’s hands on the joysticks seemed to be competing with the inflexibility of the world they found themselves in, like the end of Harlan Ellison’s ‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’, where an all-powerful and hate-filled computer transforms the last surviving member of humanity into an immortal piece of slime, ‘a great soft jelly thing’, his mind aware and alert, his body reduced to an amorphous blob of immobility; kind of like trying to get through to the end level of the should-be-so-simple Hunchback or Action Biker.
Yet limitation embraced brings its own rewards; at its best, the C64’s maddening barriers became defining features in the hands of skilful and creative game design. Designers worked with what they had, producing evocative realms of minimalism and enclosure, and the C64’s greatest asset, the high-quality SID music chip, inspired a host of memorable theme tunes and composers (like the legendary Rob Hubbard), driving the player with the propulsion of the music as much as with any recognisable goal.
Most of those compositions can still be downloaded in their original form at the High Voltage SID Collection, and the SID’s unique sound was clearly notable enough for producer Timbaland to rip off a SID version of an original tune note-for-note in Nelly Furtado’s 2006 song ‘Do It’. Timbaland called it ‘sampling’, shrugging off any responsibility for crediting others for their original work, or even bothering to find out who those original artists are, but handy comparison videos make it pretty clear Timbaland just ripped off the sound with the usual arrogance of the ‘sampler’ (sampling is fine, withholding credit – and financial compensation – isn’t).
Speaking of musicians, no game brought out this fixated, fragmented realm of the Commodore 64, or had a better relentlessly driving theme tune, than Frankie Goes to Hollywood, a weird spin-off of the ‘80s band of (of ‘Relax’ fame).
Computer games spun-off from music can be a pretty bad idea, or at least pretty uninspired. I remember drudging my way through The Blues Brothers on the Super Nintendo, with its uninspired gameplay of collecting musical bits and pieces and firing records as weapons.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood, on the other hand, fully embraces the social symbolism the band was flirting with at the time (and the overtly sexual themes that saw them banned from the BBC from time to time), starting off with an intro screen featuring the game’s core symbols: sperm, a bullet, a heart, and a cross, representing in the game, pleasure, war, love, and faith. Right away Frankie seems to be setting itself up for some kind of universal representation of being – that kind of potent-pretentious ‘80s pop-as-social-statement perfected by early Devo albums and videos.
The game kicks into full gear right away, the dullness of the street scene we enter, and the blandness of Frankie him(it?)self, completely dominated by the pulsating SID version of the band’s epic ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’, the smooth and pressure-filled bassline of the original comes to the fore, punctuated by insistent riffs that seem to take on even stronger life in being stripped down to the SID chip’s colourful, but limited, output (putting aside the obvious ‘Frankie’-written tracks, the game’s music is credited to Fred Gray).
In the midst of the soundscape, Frankie is left to wander through a suburban street scene, rows of houses differentiated only by the occasional door of a different colour or bottle of milk sitting outside.
The manual helpfully informs us of what we’re doing here:
“You begin this extraordinary experience devoid of personality, an amorphous shape in the land of the mundane. Behind the facade of flying ducks and kitchen sinks however lies a giant web of drama and intrigue spun within the pleasuredome. Scruntinise! Investigate! Probe! Objects you take for granted may be your passport to success; clues can be discovered everywhere. In this game of games you will need the skills of Arcade King, Adventurer, Super Sleuth, Mastermind and more. Frankie say Relax. Use the Power of Zap to build the equation (4 icons at bottom right corner are (left to right) Pleasure, War, Love,and Faith) to its peak when, if you respond brilliantly, you may enter the heart of the Pleasure Dome” (text taken from The Internet Archive).
Which is about as coherent as the whole thing gets. Reading manuals was for chumps, anyway.
Seemingly an empty vessel for a human being, Frankie walks in an out of empty houses, collecting random bits and pieces of generic junk (and literal red herrings) adding to Frankie’s percentage as a ‘real human’. At these moment of growth, the music cuts out, another jarring riff interrupting as we’re informed of the spiritual progression and personal development that came about through picking up a computer disc from a washing machine. Icons of faith and pleasure abound, and clicking them informs us that ‘your pleasure will be doubled’ or ‘your pain will be halved’; statements so firm in their simplicity that they always seemed both disconcerting and even a little moving, as though the human experience could be reduced to such mechanical notions of maximising pleasure and diminishing pain. The band’s sexual imagery seems to have combined with the scenario to form a kind of hedonistic scavenger hunt, where the peak of achievable humanity lies solely in the goal of aponia, the Epicurean absence of pain. Where the important and influential Ultima series sought to fill the gamespace with a pursuit of the virtues, Frankie Goes to Hollywood sees its hero constructed by more base and sensual attributes.
Meanwhile, Frankie eventually finds himself in the middle of a murder mystery, one of the generic houses delivering a dead body on the floor. Clues pop up about the killer and the people who live in the street, giving the player the strongest hint of purpose yet. But this new certainty would be short-lived; the focus on investigation would be lost in the multitude of mini-games and diversions that would emerge out of the bland surroundings: perform an action like putting a video tape into a video player and a screen would open up for Frankie to walk into, changing the scene to an arcade gamescape.
The consistency of the ‘Pleasuredome’ score, and the punctuating riffs, become so rhythmic that the deviations into the mini-games can be surprisingly jarring, as is the free-form timeless and almost directionless aura of the main game giving way to arcade-style immediacy of purpose; suddenly the weird existential journey morphs into a shooting gallery with the faces of political figures on every target, the drone of wartime bombers fills the speakers as the player is left to shoot them down before the can bomb England, or an intense spitting contest between Reagan and Gorbachev becomes the new task. And though the suburban emptiness erupts into chaotic sound and fury – win or lose, Frankie is spat back out into the loop, to keep wandering through the suburban boxes. No time limit, no immediate goal, Frankie seems to be an early example of a program more concerned with creating an experience than a game (an approach sometimes commpared to the freedom to wander and explore in the popular GTA series).
Through all of this, Frankie Goes to Hollywood benefits immensely from its overall incoherence. Hints of satire explode into white noise, and pulling some kind of definitive message from the mix seems nigh-on impossible. Clinging to the task of the murder mystery is also a lure: what seems to be the main purpose of the game is, in fact, just another mini-game. It’s the perfect representation of postmodern anxiety; what seemed to be the stable ground behind it all turns out to be no more or less real than the countless diversions around it, just another game in a sea of chaotic games, and a world defined solely by pleasure and pain.
No doubt part of Frankie‘s charm and weird evocative aura comes from its medium rather than its demonstrable content, but the limitations of the humble Commodore 64 are so expertly exploited in the game that they seem to take on a purposeful life of their own. Besides, there’s no reason that creativity and innovation can’t be mediated by mechanical limitations; heck, the famous birth of soviet montage partly came about because of a lack of film stock. Instead of shooting off long reels, they had to settle for sticking short bits and pieces together: a purely practical catalyst for an intellectual and artistic response.
Somehow this strange surrealist, minimalist nightmare in 16 colours seems to both re-confirm and transcend the Commodore 64 as a medium. It’s also weirdly touching in its blending of chaos and the mundane, existential hints and simple mechanical triggers, especially for plenty of gamer kids peering at the screen and never quite finding the sense that’s supposed to be lurking in there. Amid the din, it’s even a little bit moving when, for no good reason other than walking into a VHS screen or a photo frame in between picking up cats and bottles of milk, Frankie finds himself in a night-time field in the ‘Flower Power’ mini-game. It’s oddly calming as one of the most soothing scores ever written for a C64 game takes over, and Frankie finds himself with flowers falling gently from the sky. ‘20 flowers make a bunch’ the game informs us, its simple certainty in its pursuit of humanity in this suddenly quiet realm once again leaving it with an existential resonance beyond mere task-delivery.