Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
Header

I’ve been playing a lot of Mega Man lately, which is what tends to happen when I’m still alive and breathing. I’ve also been listening to a lot of music, for much the same reason. So I got to thinking…what if I could combine the two? I’d be rich! Then I found out that a lot of other people already beat me to it. Let’s take a look at 10 songs that politely share their names with bosses from the Mega Man series. We’ll also try evaluate just how well they’d slot themselves into the series as replacement stage music.

1) “Fire Man” – Burning Spear
Fire Man, Mega Man


Applicability to the Robot Master: I’d say it’s about 70% applicable. Of course, since 70% of the lyrics are “fire down below,” that’s pretty much a gimme. It also mentions people running around, which is a suitable image for Fire Man’s dropping of those little flaming bastards eveywhere. Burning Spear gets caught up in an homage to “I’m a Little Teapot,” which muddies the waters a bit though.

As Replacement Stage Music: The infective reggae groove is a bit laid back for the industrial hazards of Fire Man’s stage, but it certainly brings to mind feelings of scorching heat, and that’s really all we can ask.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: Yes. Come on.

Overall: A good fit for the stage and for the boss. Probably what Fire Man kicks back and listens to when he has a mellow afternoon off.

2) “Ice Man” – Filthy McNasty
Ice Man, Mega Man



Applicability to the Robot Master: Around 60%. The song is sung from an ice delivery man’s perspective, and it’s full of double entendres about the women to whom he delivers his load. (There’s one right there.) Such relentless punning is a suitable fit for the Mega Man series, which is based on some thematic rock-scissor-paper wordplay.

As Replacement Stage Music: It’s certainly repetitive enough to fit on the original Mega Man soundtrack.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: It’s longer, so, therefore, no.

Overall: Both Ice Man and Filthy McNasty would have a blast laughing their asses off over the fact that there are multiple meanings to the word “pussy.” For everyone else, this song is pretty annoying.

3) “Top Man” – Blur
Top Man, Mega Man 3



Applicability to the Robot Master: The lyrics really don’t apply to Top Man at all. Imagine that! He doesn’t reside in a desert, he doesn’t ride a magic carpet, and he doesn’t puke on the pavement. He may or may not like his women clean and shaven, though…his agent has yet to return my call about that.

As Replacement Stage Music: It’s got a fun and bouncy beat that would actually mesh quite well with Top Man’s bizarre ferns-in-glass-casing stage, but it’d certainly give the experience a far less urgent feel.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: No. Top Man’s original music is among the best in a series that’s almost uniformly great. Sorry, Blur…ya can’t stop the Top.

Overall: Not really applicable to Top Man, so there’s little to enjoy about the coincidental title. “He’s a little boy racer” is about the only line that could even conceivably apply to him, and even then it’s not particularly evocative of the NES game. Blur should be ashamed of themselves.

4) “Needle Man” – Skrewdriver
Needle Man, Mega Man 3



Applicability to the Robot Master: At first I’d have said a solid 0%, but after listening to the song I realize that this is providing valuable background information for the notoriously spastic Needle Man: he’s a junkie! No wonder he’s such a beast…the poor guy’s been tweaking in a dark room for weeks on end before Mega Man shows up. Needle Man probably thinks he’s fighting Nazis or something. It also explains his incredible strength and speed. Drugs kill, kids…but in the meantime they sure can make life Hell for the people you slap around.

As Replacement Stage Music: It’d work. Needle Man’s current theme is pretty weak as it is, with a strange kind of meandering salsa that never gets anywhere. This would give the stage some much needed energy.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: Without question.

Overall: We now know that the Needle Cannon Mega Man gets is firing dirty syringes…just to further complicate the “war for peace” morality of the series.

5) “Starman” – David Bowie
Star Man, Mega Man 5



Applicability to the Robot Master: I’d say 50%. It’s perfect thematically and the chorus is dead on, but the rest of the lyrics speak of an interglactic rock star, and I’m not sure Star Man harbors the same moonage daydreams. Regardless, “There’s a Starman waiting in the sky” might as well be a warning from Dr. Light, and the floaty, expansive nature of the music fits the low gravity stage and boss fight quite well.

As Replacement Stage Music: It’s pretty perfect. Bowie knows better than any musician alive — barring, maybe, the members of The Flaming Lips — how best to paint majestic starfields with just some guitars or synths. It’d mesh quite well with the gameplay of that stage as is.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: Yes. Some people say that Star Man has the best music in Mega Man 5. Don’t trust those people; they are obviously liars or insane. (Charge Man bitches.) Whatever anyone might think, though, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is a superior album to this Mega Man soundtrack. THERE I SAID IT.

Overall: Let all the children boogie.

6) “Plant Man” – Gary Young
Plant Man, Mega Man 6



Applicability to the Robot Master: 100%. There is only one lyric in this song, which repeatedly states that Plant Man knows if / where / that the plants will grow. Uh…no argument there, Gary.

As Replacement Stage Music: The song is atrocious, but…sure, why not. If we’re playing Mega Man 6 we deserve the punishment.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: Yes. It has notes and a melody, and is therefore superior to every track in this game.

Overall: A perfect fit. Speaking of “perfect fit,” Gary Young’s astroturf tuxedo in this video is the same one that Plant Man wore to his junior prom. When he went to his senior prom he didn’t have to wear anything…because he was somebody’s corsage! Fucking lol!

7) “Cloud Man” – Grieves
Cloud Man, Mega Man 7



Applicability to the Robot Master: A whopping 80% or so. It’s not only a song with weather conditions as a major theme, it has a deliberate and contemplative detachment that suits Cloud Man’s isolation and permanent scowl perfectly. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Cloud Man is a bit depressed. Why wouldn’t he be? He’s weak to fucking soap bubbles.

As Replacement Stage Music: I’d say it’s appropriate. The downtrodden, sluggish pace of the song absolutely mirrors the dark and rainy sections of Cloud Man’s stage, and…well…it’s just a pretty great song period. It’d stand in interesting contrast with the sunnier, brighter visual approach to Mega Man 7.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: Debatable. Overall I’d say it definitely nudges it out, but Cloud Man’s theme is already pretty great, and this kind of overt moodiness would probably feel out of place among the game’s other tracks, however refreshing the change in atmosphere (see what I did there?) might be.

Overall: This music’s sad and you should feel sad.

8) “Astro Man” – Jimi Hendrix
Astro Man, Mega Man 8 and Mega Man & Bass



Applicability to the Robot Master: I have no idea. 0%, 100%, or anything in between. I have no idea what this song is about, but I’m pretty sure Astro Man, whoever he is in this song, is calling Superman a faggot.

As Replacement Stage Music: Not at all. Jimi’s guitar is as fiery as ever, but Astro Man’s space- and technology-themed stages (he has two) would probably benefit more from some straight, swirling techno than screaming six-string theatricality.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: Yes. His current stage themes sound like rejects from a Jane Fonda workout video.

Overall: Astro Man sucks.

9) “Magic Man” – Heart
Magic Man, Mega Man & Bass



Applicability to the Robot Master: Apart from the “he’s a Magic Man” assurance, I’d say nothing. Though, arguably, “try to understand” could be Capcom imploring us to accept the fact that they were so dry on ideas that they had to resort to a Magic Man at all. Otherwise, it’s doubtful that the Wilson sisters would be irresistibly seduced by this robot master, who, to put it politely, looks like Pee-Wee Herman and Steve Urkel got together and had a gay baby.

As Replacement Stage Music: Not really. It houses a great jam, but it wouldn’t at all fit Magic Man’s carnival approach to stage design. The passionate defense of the “Magic Man” in the song though would suit the game nicely, as it’s often derided along with Mega Man 8 as being well worth skipping.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: No question. Magic Man’s stage theme sounds like it’s lifted from an SNES Barney adventure.

Overall: Magic Man wishes someone would sing about him like this. Until then, he sits alone doing card tricks. And masturbating.

10) “Tornado Man” – Las Aspiradoras
Tornado Man, Mega Man 9



Applicability to the Robot Master: I have no fucking idea. It’s pretty clearly not in English so I can’t understand it…but damn do I love it.

As Replacement Stage Music: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Absolutely perfect for the rainy, thundery, thousand-mile-high gauntlet of Tornado Man’s stage. Tornado Man’s level is a brutally addictive experience, much like this thrashing, gorgeously filthy nonsense.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: Nah, Tornado Man’s theme, like everybody’s theme in this glorious game, is utterly brilliant.

Overall: Would be a great fit…but Tornado Man’s already well served by his current tune.

11) BONUS: “Sword Man” – His Majesty Baker Jr.
Sword Man, Mega Man 8



Applicability to the Robot Master: I have no idea because I couldn’t find it on youtube. But look at that album cover. Yes, there’s a song called “Sword Man” on this album. This one. By a guy who calls himself His Majesty Baker Jr. with some pretty confusing capitalization.

As Replacement Stage Music: I mean, what is he doing? What is this? No part of this cover makes sense to me. It’s a man with a big smile wearing a green pinstripe suit, a leprechaun hat, and leaning against a pile of money that’s far too large to be legal tender.

Better Than Current Stage Music?: And he’s doing this against a backdrop of more money, with the figure $30,000 indicated above. That’s a lot of money, in a way, but in another way, if you’re going to invent sums to make yourself seem rich wouldn’t you reach much higher than that? It doesn’t register as being particularly large…or small…it’s just somebody’s annual salary, and it’s nobody who could afford to be caught wearing a suit like that in public.

Overall: I don’t understand what I’m looking at. What is this? He has gold rings on every finger of his right hand. And how many points does his God damned handkerchief have? I hate this. I’m going to bed.

As they say, everybody’s a critic. As they should say immediately afterward, “Not everybody’s good at it, but there you go.”

Criticism is difficult to perform intelligently. I should know; I’m a particularly shitty critic myself. But every so often some anonymous stranger on the internet says something that — against all odds — turns out to be extremely insightful. From there, a great series of ongoing criticism can be born, and I wanted to take some time to share with you four of my absolute favorites.

This is not just a list of links…these are sincerely fantastic critical explorations that I endorse wholeheartedly.

1) Fred Clark’s Dissections of the Left Behind series.

For the past nine years (incredible but true) Fred Clark of Slacktivist has been analyzing page by agonizing page the entirety of the Left Behind series. For those who are unfamiliar with the series, here it is in a nutshell: God loves me, but not you. Fred, being a religious man himself, is appalled by the many levels of spiritual, literary and humanitarian stupidity on display in these pages, and he pulls them apart gorgeously. It’s a discussion about bad writing, yes, but it’s also a learning experience. I challenge any writer to come away from this series without being significantly more aware of the mistakes he or she is already making. You can check out his archive starting here, but many of the posts have annoyingly gone missing thanks to a change in URL. Regardless, he’s only recently begun the third book in the series, Nicolae, Rise of the Antichrist, and you can read these posts as they go up…which is the best way to enjoy them. First post here.

2) Dead Homer Society’s Discussions of Modern Simpsons.
We can argue all day about when The Simpsons officially became a shadow of its former self, but there’s really no arguing against the fact that it is a shadow of its former self. Dead Homer Society offers a shockingly sharp look at the current state of the show, with every new episode handled over at least four posts: a preview, a next-day recap, a feature that compares and contrasts it with an episode from the show’s golden years, and a transcript of a live chat discussing all aspects of the episode. It’s a surprisingly respectful way of conversing about a show that so clearly disappoints them in every way, and it makes for fascinating reading. Or, at least, it did. Yes, for Season 24 Dead Homer Society will be scaling back coverage, which is disappointing…but they will still be in operation, and — likely — just as worthy of your and my time. They’ve also released a fantastic new ebook called Zombie Simpsons: How the Best Show Ever Became the Broadcasting Undead that you can buy from Amazon or read for free here.

3) ProtonJon’s “Let’s Play Superman 64.”
The Let’s Play is a strange beast. I’ve recorded some myself, but even so I can’t say that I’m sure why people want to watch as somebody else plays video games for them. ProtonJon’s brilliantly exhaustive trek through Superman 64, however, is a glorious exception to a tedious norm. Two years into the project and with only 6 stages under his belt, it’s clear that ProtonJon has a lot to say. He spotlights glitches from the games, discusses characters both inside and outside of their roles in this adventure, and generally goes out of his way to provide fascinating — and sometimes exclusive — information along the way. Superman 64 is widely reviled as one of the worst video games of all time…and rightly so. ProtonJon can’t — and won’t — defend the game on its merits…but he sure does have a lot of fun pulling it apart to learn everything he can about the many, many ways in which it went wrong. From interviewing the developers to playing it alongside other Superman games to comparing it to unreleased beta footage, ProtonJon has taken an effortless YouTube staple and elevated it to the status of genuine — and remarkable — documentary. Tune in.

4) The Annotated Sonichu.
From the moment I started this site, I wanted to do a Noiseless Chatter Spotlight on Sonichu, the addictively weird creation of Christian Weston Chandler…also known as Chris-Chan. Sonichu himself is an unabashed hybrid of Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog, and Chandler’s comic is meant to follow him along on his exciting adventures. Instead, though, the comic sidelines Sonichu in favor of Chandler himself, who appears on the page — as he does in real life — as a man searching for love, and unable to grasp why he hasn’t found it already. Its childish art style and bizarre narrative flow make for an easy mockery, but The Annotated Sonichu takes its source material seriously, and discusses page by page the many direct carryovers from Chandler’s personal life that shape and enrich CWCville, the town in which Sonichu takes place. Family members, friends, his dead dog and strangers online who pretend to be females interested in him all make their way into the comic at some point, where Chandler uses his narrative authority to cope with them in the only way he knows how: with Crayola markers. Truly fascinating, and an unexpectedly respectful deconstruction.

I picked up Kid Icarus: Uprising this Friday, its day of release. I’ve pre-ordered games before so there’s nothing special about my immediate purchase, but I do think it’s worth pointing out just how promising the game looked. For starters, it’s the first entry in a long-dead — but classic — franchise in twenty years or so. That’s enough to at least get me interested. Then the advertising materials started to surface, followed eventually by reviews, and everything seemed…well, everything seemed pretty perfect. It looked like a strong title and a safe bet, so I pre-ordered it…and I love it. It’s great. It exceeded more or less every expectation I had, and my expectations were pretty high.

But there’s one issue I do have with the game. Not a problem, but an issue.

See, the game is self-aware. And while this is not an issue exclusive to Kid Icarus: Uprising, the fact that even tried and true Nintendo franchises are becoming self-aware is really making me think that this self-awareness thing has gone too far.

By self-aware, I mean that the characters know they are in a video game. They keep referring to not having been around for twenty-odd years, they crack jokes about how — in previous installments — the gorgeous environments and characters we see now were much more pixilated, and they josh around regarding video gaming tropes, commenting ironically on characters who have titles like “Dark Lord” and writing off Pitt’s flight limitations as being a result of “poor fuel efficiency.”

Whether you find these jokes funny or not is beside the point. I haven’t found many of them funny, but that’s okay. Unlike Skyward Sword, you don’t have to stop and sit quietly while a group of moronic NPCs crack wise around you; this all happens in the background, as you play, and it’s easy to tune out if you’re not interested. Also unlike Skyward Sword the tutorial is skippable and doesn’t eat up the first six fucking hours of the God damned game but okay, okay, that’s a rant for another time, so back to the issue at hand.

My issue is that we, as a culture, have gotten to the point that this sort of ironic self-awareness, this postmodern acknowledgment of a product’s own shortcomings, this sidelong smirking at the audience to make us feel like we’re all part of one big in-joke, is kind of destroying entertainment.

It’s everywhere. My girlfriend and I discussed this recently when I was describing some Adult Swim show to her. (The fact that I can’t remember which one says something in itself.) I was talking about how it’s sort of an ironic undercutting of some genre or other, and she asked, “Aren’t they all like that?” And she’s right, more or less. An enormous portion of Adult Swim’s original programs are ironic undercuttings of established genres, which tap into our expectations and then — humorously — stopping short of their fulfillment. I’m happy enough, though, that Adult Swim does that. I’m not upset that so much of their original material trods the same ground. (Or, at least, approaches an audience with the same intent.) We need an Adult Swim that we can turn to, somewhere. What I’m upset about is that this self-aware game of pulling the audience’s expectations apart like taffy is infiltrating the mainstream. That’s destructive.

It’s destructive because it consumes itself. In order for expectations to be undercut, we need to have expectations. In order for us to have expectations, there need to be certain reliable tropes and facets of genre and type. Without that, the ironic commenting can’t exist. Or, at least, it can’t have any impact. When everything’s ironic, can there be any more irony? We need sincerity, too. We can’t have every piece of entertainment commenting humorously about its limitations. We can’t have otherwise straight dramatic films mentioning that their villains can’t shoot straight, or saying things like “Of course we’ll be okay; we’re the main characters.” We can’t have every commercial joking about how it wants to sell us something. And we can’t have video games making fun of what makes them video games.

At least, we can’t have that stuff all the time. And I honestly don’t think I’ve seen much, lately, whether comic or dramatic, that didn’t feel obligated to toss some broad wink at the audience. It’s not funny anymore. It’s not interesting anymore. Or, at least, you aren’t doing anything interesting with it. We don’t want you to be part of our in-joke…that defeats the purpose of it being an in-joke. When we watch a terrible movie and we laugh at it, that bonds us as an audience. When we watch a terrible movie and the movie laughs at itself for being terrible, it’s over. There is no bond…it’s just out of place and annoying, like a seventh grade teacher quoting Beavis and Butt-Head to try to find common ground with his students. It doesn’t bridge any gaps…if anything, it just encourages us to push things further away.

I like you, Kid Icarus: Uprising. I think you’re a great game. You’re a lot of fun, you look beautiful, and you’re already enticing me to replay earlier levels with a more difficult setting. You’re everything a game needs to be. You don’t need to be my ironic, smirking friend. That’s not what I want from you. That’s not the kind of bond I’d hoped we’d achieve.

You don’t need to tell me how silly and contrived things are about the story you’re telling. Because you know what, Kid Icarus: Uprising? If you really feel your story is contrived, then maybe you should have told a different one. Hanging a lampshade on these shortcomings is a way of humorously drawing attention to them, but it’s not an excuse. If I have some problem with the story, I get to laugh at it. That’s my right as an audience member. If you have a problem with the story, you need to fix it. It’s the only respectable thing to do.

I know your story is about an angel fighting mythical Greek monsters. I know that. I know it’s stupid. I know it’s absurd. But it’s a video game. By commenting on yourself ironically, you’re not endearing yourself to me; you’re only robbing me of the opportunity to enjoy the story in my own way. You may not guide the gameplay as much as Skyward Sword, but you sure are leading my interpretation by the neck.

Let us enjoy whatever story it is you have to offer. Video game, television show, film, novel, commercial, song…anything. Write a few sincere pieces. Reinforce some genre conventions. Stop tearing away at what’s established; that is not constructive. Build upon it. Learn from it. Grow stronger.

Because until you start doing that again, there won’t be anything sincere left to comment upon. The ironic outlook is self-defeating the moment it becomes universal. In fact, at this rate, it won’t be long before a genuinely sincere work of art would look like an ironic undercutting, simply because it adheres to conventions without wanting to make us laugh at them.

And that, my friends, is irony.

What Does Mega Man Think?

March 14th, 2012 | Posted by Philip J Reed in video games - (0 Comments)

Here’s a question: what does Mega Man think? When he stands there blinking, staring into the space where the now defeated robot master once stood, pelting him with projectiles, what does he think? What runs through his mind? What kind of things bubble up from beneath, into and through Mega Man’s consciousness, as he stands stock still, willfully paralyzed, unresponsive to requests and commands to move, blinking, wondering, pondering.

What sort of things might go through his mind? What memory is he fighting to suppress? What goal is he fighting for? It can’t be everlasting peace. Not anymore. He knows better. The fighting never ends, and yet he never stops fighting. He stands alone and small in an empty room, blinking.

What injury is freshest in his mind? What narrowly-avoided death trap will haunt his dreams? When will he get to go home? What sort of a life is this that he leads? An endless gauntlet of machines designed for the specific purpose of wearing him down, breaking him, demolishing him so that he can never be rebuilt.

But he survived another battle. The robot master is no more. And he stands there blinking. A robot that blinks…for what purpose does a robot blink? Is it too much to assume that he thinks at all? He speaks, and he acts, and he conquers…why could he not also think? And how would his thoughts manifest themselves? As digital coding fed repeatedly through receptors, wired circuitously so that they never quite leave him, or as something internal, something not hardwired or foreseen at his conception. Is thought an unintended consequence of designing a robot with the freedom to choose his own path forward, or was it there from the start, and the stage select screen only an illusion? After all, there might be several ways in, but only one way out.

And he stands there blinking. I tell him to move, and he does not move. I ask him to jump, and he does not reply. He stares vacantly into a room as empty as his mind might be…but then again, it might not be at all, and his lack of response could simply be the weight of the matters he is processing, pondering, considering.

What is it, Mega Man? What are you thinking about at the end of your fight? You don’t look particularly glad about your victory. Do you dread the next battle, which is always around the corner? Are you just glad to have a moment to catch your breath, to clear your mind, and to heed no man as you await the involuntary teleportation that heralds in the next fight?

Speak to me, Mega Man. You can talk…I know you can. You have a voice, and you have a mind, and right now you are so deeply inside yourself that you can’t even hear me ask you to leap around the room with joy.

What is it? Is the hero’s burden really as tragic as you make it out to be? What is it about the sight of an empty room that chokes you up in a way that no phalanx of enemy soldiers can? Have you stared, even for a moment, into the abyss? And, if you have, what is it that you learned about yourself? What broke your resolve? What robbed you of the will to continue forward?

Tell me, Mega Man. Tell us all. What presses so heavily down upon you that it renders your motionless?

What is happening in your head? I wish I knew…


Goodbye, cruel world.
xoxo Isaac

I had something else in mind for my second Noiseless Chatter Spotlight, but the fact that it’s getting pre-empted at the last minute is pretty appropriate considering its own pedigree, so I don’t have too much regret that I’m instead spotlighting a computer game from last year called The Binding of Isaac.

The Binding of Isaac has been the subject of some conversation today, as Team Meat, the game’s developers, have announced that Nintendo has declined to sell the game through its downloadable software services. That should come neither as a surprise nor as an announcement worthy of much discussion at all, and yet an awful lot of otherwise quiet people sure have a lot to say. NintendoLife’s news article on the announcement has over one hundred comments already, as of this writing, and it’s rare that anything but the most controversial news items get anywhere near that much discussion. And that’s not taking into account the forum post on the same topic that spans several pages.

But what’s controversial about Nintendo choosing to pass on hosting a game in its marketplace? Games — and developers — are declined all the time. Granted, we usually don’t hear about it, but there’s something unique here. There’s something about The Binding of Isaac that commenters, gamers, people feel the need to chime in about. It’s not a topic that can be allowed to pass without remark. This is a game that everybody has an opinion about, even those who haven’t played it, and believe me, brother, if somebody mentions the game in any context, you’re going to hear everyone else’s opinion, too.

The comments on the article linked above are fairly evenly split between “this game is art and Nintendo has no right to deny gamers access” and “this game is filth and Nintendo was right to decline.” My opinion is somewhere in the middle: this game is indeed art, and Nintendo was also right (or at least had a right) to decline.

There are three separate, but related, identities that we need to consider when we discuss this game: firstly, The Binding of Isaac as a piece of entertainment, followed by The Binding of Isaac as art, and finally The Binding of Isaac as a product.

We’ll start with looking at it as a piece of entertainment…or, even more simply, as a game.

The Binding of Isaac is a Flash-based game of survival and exploration, with a heavier emphasis on the former than the latter. Its obvious reference point is the original Legend of Zelda for the NES, which it references visually throughout the game, and from which it takes many of its gameplay features, such as the finding and using of items, the treasure boxes, and the periodic boss battles. It’s a love letter to that video game classic in the same way that Team Meat’s earlier Super Meat Boy paid homage to other such early masterworks as Super Mario Bros., Mega Man and Castlevania. Team Meat knows their medium’s history, and they are quite content to package affectionate — and lovingly monstrous — reactions and responses to them as new games.

While many gamers (and, indeed, people) see such grotesque subversion as a cheap method of getting attention for a game that might not otherwise have seen a large audience, the fact is that neither Super Meat Boy nor The Binding of Isaac stop there. While shock for shock’s sake is instantly wearisome, the over-the-top bloody nightmare of Super Meat Boy revealed itself to be a brilliant and well-designed journey through clever stages and creative boss encounters. And The Binding of Isaac transcends its scatological obsession with the grotesque and hideous to become a game about games, a game that isn’t so much about survival as it is about what it means to survive. It doesn’t just push boundaries…it questions deeply the experiences we have between the boundaries we already know. It raises questions we never thought to ask, and it answers them exceedingly well. It’s designed to look like The Legend of Zelda, but its intention is to remind you of other, very different, things from your childhood: trauma, confusion, loneliness, frustration, and that feeling we’ve all had at least once — and which we all can remember so vividly if we conjure up the memory again, or have it conjured up for us — that the world is a cruel place that never wanted us here to begin with.

As you can see, we’re already drifting into a discussion of The Binding of Isaac as art, so allow me to just get the following out of my system: many times I’ve seen people shrug and say something to the effect of, “Art is in the eye of the audience.” This is their way of saying that, hey, maybe they don’t understand something, but somebody else might, and to that hypothetical somebody else, it might be art. In other words, art is subjective. Not as an experience, but as a classification. That, my friends, is bunk.

I think it’s pretty clear in the case of most works of art that they are, in fact, works of art. What it communicates to you might be entirely different from what it communicates to me, and it may not communicate anything to either of us, but art as a classification is pretty easily sniffed out by anybody who makes a legitimate attempt to engage the material.

The strawman in this argument is always something along the lines of, “Oh, they could smear excrement all over the wall and call it art, but I wouldn’t.” In reality, very few examples of actual art would be anywhere near that obtuse. Somebody indeed might call some poop on a wall art, but they could also call a cow a vegetable. There’s no law stopping them from doing so…it’s just up to us as individuals to know that they’re incorrect, whether deliberately so or innocently confused. Either way, they’re wrong, and the cow doesn’t become a vegetable to one person and not another, simply because that’s what somebody said it was.

Art is recognizable because it has notable conflagration of themes. The components of the work of art, whatever the medium, mean something. The absence of other components also means something. The fact that they’re arranged in whatever way they’re arranged means something. Art, in other words, has meaning. We can argue all day about what that meaning is, but we shouldn’t be arguing over whether or not a meaning can be experienced.

The Binding of Isaac is obviously a deliberately crafted piece of art that is not only consistent unto itself (and therefore free of the nonsensical “shit on a wall” brush-off) but its themes are plentiful and overt. There’s no question that The Binding of Isaac has meaning. You may interpret it to be something other than I interpret it to be, but the foundation for interpretation has been laid, and sturdily.

Isaac, as a character, is a little boy who lives with his highly religious mother. The plot of the game sees poor Isaac fleeing through the basement to escape his mother, who believes she’s been called by God to re-enact the biblical account of Isaac and Abraham. Isaac fights monsters and his own psyche (often both at the same time) and uses his tears as projectiles. His sadness manifests itself as the pitiful creatures that he attacks, his mother-inherited disgust for his own physical form is reflected in the piles of dung and hideous representations of human body parts scattered around the dungeons. Between levels Isaac is haunted by a randomly summoned memory of himself being humiliated by his mother or his peers. Isaac is a damaged soul, and so is his mother. The difference is that Isaac is on the receiving end. He is powerless. He has no weapons, and he has no clothes. He seems doomed to fail. Due to the random nature of the game, he often is. There’s enough in that brief synopsis to unpack for weeks. This game has something to say. It may not always be sure what it wants to say at any given time, but that’s okay…we’re not always sure about what we’re hearing.

The strongest corollary for me here is Pink Floyd’s masterpiece concept album The Wall. The overbearing mother and the feeling of isolation and worldly entrapment are parallel themes between the two works, and just as Pink Floyd hooks unsuspecting listeners with the familiar rocking satisfaction of “Young Lust” or the anthemic sadness of “Comfortably Numb,” only to bombard them with far more complicated, despondent and often impenetrably central songs and cycles once they’re too far in to escape, The Binding of Isaac seduces that area of our brain that loved The Legend of Zelda and would love to play a gross parody of it…only to strip, disarm and humiliate us, and then force us to fight our way back toward the light…any light.

A work featuring such a questionable representation of God should certainly cause us to question the nature of God ourselves. No, not necessarily in real life, but within the universe of the piece of art. Does God exist there? Isaac’s mother thinks so…but Isaac, in the situation from which we are trying to free him, probably shouldn’t. What kind of God would really command this? Or is there no God? Or is there a God who was misinterpreted? Or perhaps a God who doesn’t even realize any of this is happening to one of His creatures.

The game seems to suggest, I’d argue, an absence of God. After all, one of the first differences Legend of Zelda fans will notice is the lack of a definite map. Every time the game begins, the levels are generated randomly. Bosses are mixed up, items are scrambled or missing, and sometimes a good portion of the areas will be inaccessible, because the game didn’t provide you with the key you needed before you found the door. The Legend of Zelda had a God. (Or, actually, three goddesses.) Things were reliable; Hyrule was a fixed commodity with an unseen force holding it all together. One room always led to another, and with enough time and practice, you could come to know what to expect. There was a heavenly constant that maybe couldn’t help you out of every jam, but could at least prevent the universe from reknitting itself beneath your feet, and leaving you in a completely different place from what you were logically led to expect.

The Binding of Isaac has no such presence. Every step is fraught with danger, and while you may stumble blindly into the next room to find a helpful upgrade, you’re just as likely — or, probably, more likely — to find a powerful foe you’re ill-equipped to conquer. You can’t rely on your memory, and Isaac can’t count on your familiarity with his predicament. Every time you play the game, the poor kid is cast into an entirely different world of entirely different chaos. And it’s brilliant.

I think people question games like The Binding of Isaac as art because they’re obscene. (It explains their shit-stained-wall fall-back, too.) There’s some bizarre sort of reluctance to allow obscenity and art — as classifications — to intermingle, and I’m not sure why that is. Something might be obscene, they feel, or something might be art, but it certainly can’t be both. It’s an almost — ahem — puritanical outlook, and it’s dreadfully incorrect. We’ll touch on each of these pieces again in the future, I’m sure, but take a look at the Holy Trinity of Obscenity as Art: Ulysses, Lolita and Gravity’s Rainbow. From masturbating in public to pedophilia to the sexual consumption of human excrement, these books can often be utterly repugnant. And yet there’s a beauty in that repugnance. It’s not the stories they tell, it’s how they’re told. It’s not the content, it’s the context. It’s not the detail, it’s the meaning. They represent masterful artists painting repulsive portraits in language we can’t help but feel moved by. The Binding of Isaac is moving in its helplessness, in its despair, and in its ruthless, relentless tragedy. It’s an unpleasant experience, but it’s beautifully executed.

It’s also, however — getting to our third point about The Binding of Isaac as a product — unsellable. At least that’s how Nintendo feels, and, as much as I respect the game, I have to agree with their decision. They are, after all, a business first and foremost. Publishers were reluctant to touch the novels listed above, and while it might seem fun to point at the obscenity trials that plagued the comparatively-tame Ulysses, they had a point, and that point was to accurately reflect the opinions of the other human beings who occupied the world around James Joyce. Yes, many of them found Ulysses to be gorgeous and important, but others found it to be disgusting and downright criminal.

Again, I’d argue that no matter what they felt about the book, they had no right to claim it wasn’t “art.” They did, however, have every right to boycott the publisher, and Joyce, and anyone else associated with the book. After all, as consumers, their strongest vote is always in their wallet. They could stonewall publication, protest shops that carried it, and burn extant copies in the street. That much was their right. They had no right to claim it wasn’t art, but they had every right to decide they’d rather not share a world with it.

The Binding of Isaac is a difficult to stomach game that both subverts and perverts one of the best known stories of the Bible. It skewers blind faith, it punishes a naked child, and it repulsively de-sanctifies the human body. It’s mean-spirited and cruel, determinedly evil and unapologetically crass.

But it’s art. And while art has every right to a spotlight at an exhibition for those who wish to see it, it does not have an inherent right to be offered as a digital download beside the classic NES games that inspired it. Nintendo has decided that it would rather not place The Binding of Isaac in a shop next to Super Mario Bros., and I can’t say I disagree with that decision, or that I’d have made it differently.

I think it’s a great game. I think that a lot of gamers will be missing out on it because of Nintendo’s decision. But I can’t begrudge them, because as a product, it’s a bonfire and a public relations nightmare waiting to happen. Ulysses found a distributor, and so has The Binding of Isaac. The distributors who turned them down turned them down for a reason, and I respect them for that. In neither case did the reason have anything to do with withholding a work of art from those who might want to experience it; it had to do with staying in business. And, as businesses, that wasn’t a totally ridiculous decision.

Nintendo just said they’d rather not sell it. They never said it wasn’t art.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...