This wasn’t on the original list of games to be covered. Consider its inclusion something of a magickal mistake, honored as hidden intention. I cast my initial circle carelessly, and, through an accident of timing, ensconced a particular monster within the territory covered. This, then, is the consequence.
Like any story, it could begin anywhere. Let’s pick 1980, when a Chicago record shop called Wax Trax, owned by Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher, began releasing records itself, including both local acts like Ministry and European acts like Front 242. The resulting WaxTrax! label became one of those glorious scenester success stories, at the forefront of the American industrial music scene despite being a literal backroom operation with spectacularly lax bookkeeping.
WaxTrax! represented a key part of a slow and arcing transition for the industrial subgenre, which began in the late 1970s as an aggressively experimental anti-genre pioneered by UK acts like Throbbing Gristle, whose legendary founder Genesis P-Orridge coined the actual term. As with any such venture it gradually cleaned up its act (literally – Throbbing Gristle performances were famously the sorts of things that required phrases like “licked their own vomit off the stage” to describe) and became a quasi-mainstream style that visibly influenced actually popular bands like Depeche Mode.
In the US this culminated late in the decade when Cleveland-based musician Trent Reznor assembled a set of demos during spare time working as a technician/janitor at Bart Koster’s Right Track Studios. Reznor managed to spark a bidding war for the album, and through WaxTrax! was one of the labels to make him an offer, he ended up going with TVT, an oddball label that got its start releasing compilations of television theme songs, but that also handled things like the American distribution of Discordian legends the KLF, a band that famously literally had a million quid to burn, mostly on the basis that TVT was willing to pay for him to work with top tier industrial producers.
The resulting album was Nine Inch Nails’s 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine, and its fusion of the increasingly danceable industrial sound with more pop-friendly song structures and a brutally confessional lyrical style made Nine Inch Nails the premiere band for alienated American white boys of the 90s. Their second full-length album, The Downward Spiral, was released just a few weeks after X-Kaliber 2097, and featured the mega-hit “Closer,” whose leeringly stomping chorus of “I wanna fuck you like an animal” was the perfect way to offend millions of suburban American parents who had finally gotten over Mortal Kombat. This album, however, was released by Interscope, who had acquired Reznor from TVT in 1992 following his acrimonious falling out with boss Steve Gottileb.
Nine Inch Nails’s assault on the mainstream charts made industrial bands the hot new thing for major labels to acquire. The resulting feeding frenzy hit WaxTrax! hard. The label’s DIY ethos meant that it was being run largely on handshake deals that were spectacularly vulnerable to disruption, and the label quickly found itself under water. It made a valiant effort to tidy up its business practices and refocus on dance music (always closer to Nash and Flesher’s hearts anyway), but the writing was on the wall and in 1992 the label was sold to TVT, who had after all just lost their industrial band to Interscope. There, the label withered in a stream of forgettable releases.
Among the first of these was the self-titled debut of a Minneapolis techno band called Psykosonik. Their sound was miles from the hard-edged growl of Nine Inch Nails or their labelmate KMFDM – an upbeat, club-friendly bleat of synthesizers as dated as the Ks in the band name. The album’s lead-off track, “Welcome To My Mind,” featured vocalist Paul Sebastien earnestly rapping gothically overripe lyrics like “Welcome, enter nightmare center / Darkness falls, now I surrender / Hateful dreaming, self-demeaning / Running from a faith where void has meaning.” The video is a thing of wonder, with computer graphics slathered on so thick one feels like one might connect to AOL at any moment. Pay particular attention to the bald man with the dead-eye stare. He’ll be important later.
Not long after the album came out a bevy of tracks from it were remixed for the Nintendo S-SMP and dropped onto the soundtrack of X-Kaliber 2097, Activision’s localization of a disposable Japanese beat-em-up platformer. Indeed, this became the game’s primary marketing feature – no surprise given that it was otherwise a terrible game with a generic 90s cyberpunk aesthetic. Indeed, the WaxTrax! And TVT logos appear right after the Activision title card in the game’s intro, scored to “Welcome To My Mind.”
The soundtrack all sounds like that, generally to its detriment. The first level’s music, a version of lead single “Silicon Jesus” (“Digital disbeliever, there’s a storm in the world tonight / Digital disbeliever, now it’s time for you to come inside / Well, you can find the power, it’s behind your eyes / Touch the chalice to your skull and enter paradise”) essentially reorchestrates the same short and club-friendly riff over and over again for three minutes, a tortuous cascade of two-second crescendos that quickly becomes as insufferable as the bland Strider knock-off level itself.
Not long after the game’s February 1994 release Psykosonik shed two of its members, drummer Mike Larson and keyboardist Theodore Beale – that’s the gentleman with the dead-eyed stare. Beale went on to a brief career in video game design, making a Doom knockoff called Rebel Moon. When the sequel to that got cancelled, Beale regrouped and tried again, this time knocking together a “Christian Action Game” called The War in Heaven, which tied in with a series of fantasy novels Beale published around the same time.
This refocus from the post-industrial scene to the evangelical niche market was an easy one for Beale, who had ample connections on the right-wing evangelical scene through his father, who had been on the board of televangelist Pat Robertson’s Minnesota campaign in the 1988 Presidential race. And it proved a fruitful one; Beale found his home in the right-wing extremist press, pushing out a mix of unreconstructed pulp sci-fi and fantasy novels and half-baked right-wing tracts through his vanity press Castalia House, and marketing them mainly by being a loudmouthed Internet troll. These days he’s probably best known for hijacking the 2015 Hugo Awards by exploiting a loophole in the nomination process to pack the ballot with stuff from his own press, a campaign he launched more or less out of spite as part of his ongoing campaign of trolling sci-fi writer John Scalzi. I wrote a thing about it last year, which I published the day after kicking off the Super Nintendo Project.
Which is what brings us here. Because as part of his general publicity strategy of being a jerk on the Internet, Beale was an early booster of Gamergate, getting in back when it was still called the Quinnspiracy with this blog post, less than a week after the Gjoni post. (Do me a favor and actually click that, would you? You don’t have to actually read it or anything. Just humor me.)
Beale was not a major figure in the movement. He’s a crypto-nazi with a Vigenère cipher, after all, and even the most cretinous of Gators knows to disavow that. But he was one of the first to recognize the possibilities for synergizing Gamergate with the larger alt-right. And his sense of the possibilities of Gamergate are considerable; he’s literally claimed it will save western civilization. But for all his bemusing hubris, he perfectly embodies the surplus cruelty that is the movement’s most nauseating quality. A schoolyard sadist harnessing the short-circuiting Internet rage of sexually frustrated video game nerds in pursuit his vision of a Christian Europe for European Christians. And here he is, on the Super Nintendo, right at the heart of my lost year.
One is hardly surprised when these things happen. This is how magic works. As Crowley says, “by doing certain things, certain results follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophical validity to any of them.” A narrative’s natural tendency is to cohere.
So while we do not believe in anything so crass as a cause, we have all the same a remarkable nexus of threads. X-Kaliber 2097 could scarcely be a better symbol for what it represents within this landscape. Its plot – invented wholesale for the American market out of the iconography of the original – is a crass and unreconstructed damsel in distress narrative, with a nice rapey twist as the kidnapped love interest becomes the host for the alien-Satan final boss to boot. This final boss – a plot twist in which the gang boss villain Raptor turns out to have been getting his “ruthless, mutating Morphs” from an alien overlord – perfectly anticipates the xenophobic racism that is Beale’s stock in trade, right down to the basic fear of concepts of change and uncertainty. And, of course, the fact that the main character’s magic sword is an ancient British myth that’s gone through the same early 90s text filter that produced “Psykosonik” gives it a nice white nationalist sheen too. More broadly, the cyberpunk trappings are of course the iconography du jour of the early 1994 SNES game – note the games on either side of this in the Project – and still central to Beale, whose Amazon author photo is of himself wearing mirror shades with an Instagram filter applied so he looks like he’s got stubble. A perfect microcosm of all that Beale represents. Beale a perfect synecdoche for GamerGate.
Shall we up the stakes further? Observe the thread of industrial music upon which we pulled to discover Beale within this essay. It is a powerful thread, especially within the context of magical ritual. Genesis P-Orridge, who coined the term, is as great a magician as has lived. H/er work, in turn, reaches back to Burroughs, a grand theorist of the destructive power of language who coined the term “control machine,” a term that anchored our third post, following Anna’s post on F-Zero, which began with sound as this did, a mirroring of the project’s start, a ritualistic circle drawn in text, circumscribing Beale and with him Gamergate, and Nemesis, and all of it, everything we have ever wanted to destroy, here in one symbol.
The situation’s fraught with possibility – a fractal depth of meaning that bursts out of every detail. The ugly and persistent strand of neonazi iconography that has always haunted the industrial scene. The detail that Psykosonik, post-Beale, appeared on the Mortal Kombat soundtrack. The way the lyrics of “Welcome To My Mind,” which Beale himself wrote, apply perfectly to the present situation, right down to the invocation of fractals.
And, of course, you clicked on that link to his blog earlier. Which means this is showing up in his referral logs. And he’s nothing if not consistently vain, which means he’ll click through before long. Soon he’ll be reading these exact words. I wonder what the strapline at the top of the page will be when he loads it. I hope it’s “the trap at the end of the clickbait.” That would be fitting. You will read all the way to the end, won’t you?
Ensnared then. It remains only to decide what to do with our prey. We cannot destroy it. X-Kaliber 2097 is a real game. It happened, is part of the world. There is no avoiding the truth: the future really did follow from this. We have summoned the beast before us; we cannot hope to deny its existence. Accept it then. Stare at it. Take it in.
So we are forced to concede that, yes, in point of fact Gamergate has an entirely legitimate claim to a portion of our psychic landscape. Its place in the history and heritage of the medium is indisputably existent. And what a place in history it is. A crap game stitched together from poor imitations of better ones, shoveled out onto the American marketplace to be all but forgotten. A car-crash mediocrity, like everything Theodore Beale touches. This is the sum of it. What is theirs. Their claim. A bad game that we can finally switch off.