Friday, September 18, 2015

In Praise of Evoland 2

Pastiche is ... the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language[,] ... a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody's ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter[,] ... blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs[.] ... This situation evidently determines what the architecture historians call 'historicism,' namely, the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusions, and in general ... the increasing primacy of the 'neo.' (Jameson, Postmodernism 17-8)
Evoland 2 is Final Fantasy with a circumscribed scope, a Zelda set in thriving cities, Earthbound without the pathos. It is Secret of Mana reduced to its ostensible innovation in action, arriving twenty two years too late.

And then, on top of that, it is River City Ransom where punching feels like shit, it is DonPachi with a massive hurtbox, it is Street Fighter II with loose controls, Guitar Hero on a gamepad, Gradius with one gun, Final Fantasy Tactics with incompetent enemies, Magic: The Gathering with no decks and boring cards. It is even briefly, which is to say for an unbearable eternity, a turn-based, match three Puzzle Fighter. And the list goes on. For twenty hours. And these are only the things it explicitly references.

As if to add insult to injury, Evoland 2 is also one other thing: absolutely crucial.

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Games, an art form only about 30 years old, has no such canon of great works. Maybe that’s due to the youth of the medium. But let’s say we had such a list: Would we still have easy access to them all? Would they be archived in such a way that we could still play them, or might their platforms, their technology, have aged out of relevance, lost to the winds?
If contemporary games discourse has a trace (in the Derridean sense), then that present absence, the negation that gives it meaning, must be the archive. Not history or institutional knowledge, not curation or preservation or accessibility – though each of these things is, in its own, often deep way, a problem. Neither is it, though the cyclic discussions of games preservation tends to lean in this direction, the corpus. The collection and maintenance of all hitherto existing games, no less than the development of pedagogical norms and the determination of the great works, needs doing, and is not so much ignored as quietly militated against by the very institutions that these projects will all one day be tailored to benefit.

To crib a bit: "By [archive] I do not mean the sum of all the texts that a culture has kept upon its person as documents attesting to its own past, or as evidence of a continuing identity; nor do I mean the institutions, which, in a given society, make it possible to record and preserve those discourses that one wishes to remember and keep in circulation." That is, the archive which is the trace of the discourse isn't the Special Collection in the back of some library, but "that which determines that all these things said do not accumulate endlessly in an amorphous mass, nor are they inscribed in an unbroken linearity, nor do they disappear at the mercy of chance external accidents[.] ... [The archive] is the general system of the formation and transformation of statements."*

The archive is, in other words, the condition of possibility of discourse. It is why these cyclic discussions, as of preservation, can happen. Jackson, quoted above, says also that "[g]ames critics seem to have the same arguments, the same discussions every five years or so," while quoting Ian Bogost lamenting the short collective memory of the field. Bogost seems to focus on the churn, while Jackson isolates an interest in history; both, however, take the field's existence, which is to say its ability to capture dispersed rhetoric into an object both coherent and fragmented, for granted.

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The assumption implicit in what you're saying is that a work's formal structure isn't as relevant as what it accomplishes. This is a completely valid point of view, but not, I think, all that useful for sorting something into a genre. But I accept that many simply don't care about sorting that way.
The irony of Evoland 2 is that, for all the particular, important ways that its pastiche falls flat, it nails what is perhaps the most important aspect of the broadest genre it cannibalizes. Evoland 2 takes the single unifying affect that is most fundamental and most particular to the class of games that it plays upon and distils it. The result of this distillation is, unfortunately, 100% pure tedium.

Tedium can be, for games, an effective material. Chrono Trigger nearly announces that it is built upon it. Early in the game, prior to any real plot, the player wanders through a festival. One of the available diversions is a relatively easy battle with a singing robot. Fighting the robot gives Silver Points, which can be exchanged for cash, which can be used to buy a sword that is, for at least the next few hours of the game, pretty overpowered. Which is to say: in what is effectively the game's prologue, the player is highly incentivized to engage in what is essentially a mockery of the most mechanics-heavy aspect (the battle system) to the point of reducing it to rote memorization. It's tedious; and so, as a tutorial, incredibly effective. The player will spend the next tens of hours accumulating and exchanging, accumulating and exchanging. Because of that tedium, though, she will notice the particular contours of things that otherwise would not have worked. The particular ways the story shifts, the rapidly-normalized eruptions of whimsy, the subtle reframings of that cycle of accumulation and exchange in all aspects of the game, even the peculiar joy of enacting that cycle: none of these would mean anything without the backdrop.

Aeris' death doesn't matter unless you've been bored out of your skull – in a very specific way – first. The original Evoland's parody of this moment drove that home; for Final Fantasy to work, the mere existence of its identifiable signifiers is nowhere near enough. The game has to be sufficiently tedious and, crucially, requires that the tedium be the basis on which the impressive scope of the game is founded.

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The only difference now is that the material grounding no longer leaves the possession of the corporations who sell the immaterial work, and when it is no longer financially profitable for them to maintain access the work, they will take it away again. It is curatorship by capitalism, preservation by profit, and it is turning the history of videogames into a scorched earth.
Claiming the archive as trace is a way of saying that games discourse, no matter how critical of the technological fetishism of the industry it might be, is trapped in a dead model of history. The "scorched earth" of video game history, which at this point is a little more like a pockmarked map, is at this point still as fundamentally a progressive history as any succession of console generations or scientific clarification.

The dispersion of statements – not even to mention the peculiarity of their enunciation, their status as events – and, more crucially, the means by which they are brought to bear upon each other, how these statements that are events are not just keys in a narrative but moments that transform others and themselves along certain lines of knowledge; this is the anxiety that underpins the ways in which games are discussed.

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Evoland 2 is all tedium, no transformation. It is the sort of game that begins to surprise you because it can't possibly be so unsurprising at such a constant clip. You first wonder why it is that you are bothering seeking out some useless collectible; not long after that, you wonder why it is you are bothering with a story with even less weight than an item literally called a "Collectible Star." In the case that "you" is "me, the writer of this," then you circle back around; you 100% the game even though it takes the developer over a week to patch out a bug preventing the completion of the (awful) card game. You do this out of spite, but also because you grind the Lode Sword out of Gato. Because you have enough history with these games to know that tedious repetition is sometimes sufficient as synecdoche.

But the synecdoche needs the scope, needs the desolation or the pathos or the whimsy. Tedium is not a suitable grounding for the play of random stylistic allusions, at least not insofar as these themselves are meant to allow for play. The first (commercial) Evoland dug a hole and lay in it, petulantly refusing to do any more; Evoland 2 never stops digging.

All of which is a way of saying that, in the most infuriating possible way, Evoland 2 gets it right. And right, crucially, in a way that can't or won't be conveyed in the discourse, as long as it remains written. Evoland 2 is its own archive, an experience of the condition of possibility that, beyond genre or developer or publisher or mechanics, conditions the possibility of a diversity of statements – games – to become legible as a discourse. An experience that breeds only resentment.

* Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, 128-30.