I was hoping this post would involve me taking delivery of my first ever arcade cabinet, but sadly that was not to be. Hopefully, however, come the weekend: arcade goodness!
So, last post I mentioned the blog Alpha Signal Five. Well, what brought me to that blog in the first place was a post talking about a particular “vital” VHS tape from 1997: one that, in fact, I’ve also long held beloved, for much the same reasons as Vincent gives. And, as it happens, one I’ve been wanting to write about for a while myself.
The tape in question was Gamesmaster’s Christmas 1997 promo tape for the PlayStation: a trippy montage of game footage (much of it mindblowing at the time, in that these were some of the first games to utilise FMV cutscenes that actually looked good, relying on CG models that blended with the game worlds rather than the grainy, poorly-acted live-action video of past attempts), spliced with scenes of forgotten ruins, tribal dancers and elderly mystics. Overlaid onto all of this was a soundtrack that’s stuck in the minds of many viewers, including me, for decades after – particularly the first song, with its ethereal female vocals and lyrics that seem uncannily self-aware when it comes to the experience of gaming itself. Ignore the horribly mangled preview image: this is worth watching.
Give me the freedom to destroy
Everything I see
(Seeing inside a strange new world
Where nothing is as it seems
As long as I am someone else
I can do whatever I please)
Fantastic illusions fill my mind
Places I’ve never seen
Time is eternal
Life is a lie
Death is just a state of mind
I mean, who wouldn’t be captivated by that? Even if you don’t agree, it certainly makes you think: about gaming, about the roles and avatars we take on when we play, about fiction’s ability to transport us to another realm entirely – even about life and death. That last line, “death is just a state of mind”, has stuck in my head for years, always accompanied by the image in the video of a woman, looking contemplative, standing beneath a cherry blossom tree. (An awfully astute pairing of music and visuals, given that cherry blossoms in Japan are symbolic of reflections on mortality, and the transience of things.)
But, as I discovered recently, this isn’t the only promotional video of the era that ventured into the surreal. Sony was notorious for their mind-bending advertising in general, even going as far as to commission David Lynch to produce one of their TV spots. Likewise, Sega put out a promo tape that, while perhaps less inspiring, goes from intimidation by soft-spoken, androgynous alien overlords to gourmet food commercial and back again within the space of about five minutes.
Sega’s earlier ads weren’t exactly ordinary either, at least in the UK. The stuff starting around 9:15 on that tape – the “dead hedgehog” and laughing robot dog – creeped the everloving fuck out of me as a kid, even if it seems tame now. As a lifelong Nintendo kid up to that point, clearly I wasn’t as good as it took Sega to be, or at least as sadistic as it took to flash dead animal props before impressionable young souls in the ad breaks before Woof!. Sonic, I love you, but your PR department are dicks.
So why gaming’s long history of trippy ads? I hadn’t thought about it before, but maybe Vincent hit the nail on the head in his post when he said they were full of all the things games were about.
Games certainly attempt to transport you to another world, even moreso than other forms of fiction; Sony’s ads make it clear that this is their goal, from their “fantastic illusions” and “strange new worlds” to the concept of The Third Place. (On why they hired David Lynch for the latter commercial, Sony said quite explicitly: “He’s been living in The Third Place for quite a few years. If there was one person that was gonna to understand what we needed to communicate […] it was gonna be David Lynch”.)
But going further than that – games, I think, are incredibly impenetrable, or at least they were when we were kids. We know how movies work: you point a light-capturing device at some people acting. We know how animation works: you point a light-capturing device at hundreds of thousands of sequential drawings. We know how video games work: uh, there are long strings of instructions written in an arcane language? And somehow this creates an environment that you, or I, or anyone can influence? Help? Bueller?
Likewise, when you see a glitch in an old hand-drawn animation, it’s easy to work out what went wrong. Oh, someone forgot to paint in Donald’s eyes in that frame; oh, someone accidentally painted that hat green and not blue. No big. When video games glitch, the results, and what caused them, are often unfathomable to the layperson. Why do the 1-Ups gained from repeatedly bouncing on Wigglers turn into gibberish symbols after a while? What the hell is up with the Minus World? Or Missingno.? Or any of this Nightmare Fuel?
Okay, so a lot of us these days are programmers, and for those who aren’t, there are plenty of sites devoted to deconstructing the most famous of these glitches. (The Pokémon community, built as it is around games that are mostly glitch with some incidental code, has done a particularly good job of cataloguing theirs.) We know how the Minus World works, or if we don’t we can find out. But when we were kids, glitches were mysterious, even scary. They reminded us that these fantastic worlds that we visited were truly alien to us, and didn’t play by any rules we could make sense of. Things outside our familiar expectations, things that we knew were somehow just not meant to occur, would manifest and vanish again without a trace. Glitches are to game worlds what a car crash is to this reality: jarringly violent, turning familiar figures into scrambled parodies of themselves, guts exposed to the light.
So perhaps these ads are trippy because games themselves are trippy. They give us endless new worlds and all the possibilities they bring: awe and wonder, the thrill of discovery, bold adventures under brilliant blue skies. But those worlds are also inherently fragile, with darkness and dissolution just a tilted cartridge or dirty connector away. Kill screens lie in wait for people who venture too far; attempt the impossible, or even the merely improbable, and reality comes crashing down around you. The punishment for daring to say “there must be more than this” is madness. Which is not so very different from occultism, really, which in turn is not so very separate from the dark psychedelia of these videos. Whether in games, drug trips, or through occult rituals, we’ve always sought to push the boundaries of the reality around us – and also feared the consequences.
Then again, I notice a distinct trend with all of these ads: they were made in the UK. Maybe we Brits are just bonkers. But I like to think there’s something more to it than that.
After all, as a lifelong gamer, occasional tripper, and sometimes-occultist, it feels like I’ve always been searching for The Third Place. Maybe I’ll meet you there someday, too.