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I had three great loves in childhood, and though I have forgiven them, they all betrayed me. Doctor Who I have, of course, written about at length; it turned on May 12th, 1996, the day before Super Mario RPG came out. Comics, a topic relevant to this game, were a more gradual process, with no clear moment the line was crossed from a certain tension between us to outright betrayal. The beginning of seventh grade, in any case; around my twelfth birthday. Mortal Kombat II, perhaps, or Final Fantasy III. And then there are video games.
It’s hard to count how many times I’ve been betrayed by video games. There is, after all, a high potential for it. We’ve discussed already how the basic model of business games relies on the idea that they’ll be fun for a decent number of hours. There is nothing, then, quite as awful as the phenomenon of the shit video game. To buy a game is not a small thing; there are ultimately a finite number of moments in a year where you’ll get to do it. Picking a bad one is awful.
Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge is an example – a crushing, awful disappointment waiting to sting anyone foolish enough to be seduced by its branding. It is as though they took two-level demos of five games deemed unworthy of further development, reskinned them to include Marvel characters, and released them as an omnibus. The connections between levels and the five playable superheroes are often tenuous at best. Cyclops is randomly thrown in a mine-cart level. Storm is trapped underwater, seemingly mainly so nobody would have to figure out how to get good controls for a flying character. Wolverine is fighting evil clowns. Controls are sloppy and imprecise.
But in another sense, video games betray you from the start. It’s how they work; their central dynamic. The resistance of rules to will. We bind our very nervous systems to them, and they twist away and sever us, leaving us staring at the sudden amputation of the Game Over screen. Even today, Spider-Man and the X-Men: Arcade’s Revenge exists within me. I have not touched it in a decade at least, but when, in the first level, I drop down a shaft and find three paths that I can go down, there is an deep instinct, beyond even a memory, of what order to go in. In yet another, then, it’s only ever one big betrayal: an ongoing process of being repulsed by what defines you.
I am about fifteen minutes from most of the places I grew up, halfway up Morris Ridge, overlooking downtown. Summer is breaking on the shores of the shrinking days, but retains the high ground for now. The sense of oddness that has permeated the weather for years persists; it feels as though it didn’t used to be this hot in early September. Confirmation bias, one assumes. And yet there is a sense of underlying wrongness that hangs over the world; like the heat’s a fever reacting to some greater infection.
The conceptual climate weighs as heavy as the physica. This is a magician’s sixth sense; a mental map of symbolic spaces as detailed as muscle memory. Since starting this ritual I have given Nemesis a place within that map. I feel it at all times, lurking in all the places defined by my rejection of them. A sickly stench wafts out of the scars it leaves on the landscape. Its latest: an international news organization sourcing a story about a minor Twitter activist from 8chan, who themselves base the claims on scoured IRC logs from when their victim was basically just a kid fucking around by saying stupid shit on the Internet. Even if the worst of the accusations against her are true, they are a matter for local law enforcement, not international mob justice delivered through the dehumanizing anonymity of the Internet. But there is no stopping it. The trap door opens, and into the demented carnival game she goes, cast into the hands of a crass and artless sadist.
It would be unfair to say this is completely uncontroversial – a minor internal argument opened just a few days ago about the ethics of such “outing” journalism. But things being what they are, this was in the end a debate between people who thought such exposes were OK about Gamergate critics and those who thought they were OK for minor #BlackLivesMatter activists as well. In effect, a debate among a bunch of misogynistic bullies about whether racism was OK too.
As with every individual point within this labyrinth, there are further resonances. The X-Men, largely by fiat of one of their white creators, are generally taken as metaphors for race, with Professor X and Magneto (neither represented in this game) presented as analogues for Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. This is by and large a weak reading, not least because of how utterly ghastly the idea of a bunch of white guys in the 60s writing a parable about how Malcolm X is the bad guy and Martin Luther King is the good guy is. A more interesting, and, for that matter, more supportable reading is that they are a metaphor for homosexuality – something that fits well with the detail that mutant powers emerge during puberty. The sense of the X-Men as a specifically adolescent concept has always been there, and so a form of oppression that is inexorably linked to sexual awakening makes sense.
The comics creator Darryl Ayo has noted his objection to both of these readings, however, by pointing out that the central premise of the X-Men – that they have superpowers – undercuts any reading of oppression. He is most damning about the reading of the characters as metaphors for race, pointing out the way in which black bodies are marked as being stronger and more aggressive, thus justifying swift recourse to violence, taking issue with the way in which, if the X-Men are a metaphor for race, they’re one in which every black man really is a Scary Black Man. In his eyes, if they’re a metaphor for anything, it’s gun control, the comics being in effect a parable about how awful it is that the government wants to regulate gun-owners.
It’s a sharp point, perfectly overstated to the exact degree necessary to drive white liberals into a frothing rage. (And Ayo’s subsequent responses to white people lecturing him on the glory of the X-Men as a racial metaphor were delightful in their brusque dismissal.) But there remain other routes that can interestingly be taken; things that can be true alongside this.
One of the most pathologically interesting things about Nemesis is the way in which it visibly favors the victimization of trans women. No, not just visibly; lustily. Even for the two minutes a day in which the stopped clocks are right they are visibly compelled to misgender and deadname the subjects of their ire in ways that render it impossible to believe that they aren’t being chosen for that reason.
The trans body is, of course, portrayed as dangerous in different ways than the black body. Its most superficial level, and the one trans women are most often brutalized for, is the idea of the trans body as a deceptive trap – an image that resonates intriguingly within the current nexus of symbolism. But there is a larger sense, and one that is more interesting simply because there is actually a degree of meaningful truth to it. The trans body is inherently, by its existence, destabilizing to the idea that the gender binary is some trivial and self-evident line.
This, perhaps, feeds better into the X-Men, not so much to make them effective metaphors for real-world oppression, but rather to point out the (in 1992 still mostly latent) theme of futurism implicit in the X-Men. By convention, Marvel’s mutants are known as “homo superior,” a phrase that ties into a vast midcentury rhetoric of an evolutionary future that threatens to consume the present – one that, by dint of David Bowie, is fundamentally bound up in queerness as an aesthetic category. Put another way, the real danger of mutants is less that they’re going to explode your head as that they’re going to undermine the basic foundations of human civilization.
(Spider-Man, obviously, is the straight white ally in this analogy. You can tell because he gets top billing.)
But in all of this it is perhaps Arcade who is, if not most fascinating, at least most revealing. It’s not just that he appears to be the direct visual model for at least one prominent right-wing blowhard; after all, Tucker Carlson isn’t actually part of Nemesis. Rather, it’s that the vicious sadist who traps people in homicidal amusement games is literally named Arcade. The name, dating as it does to the late 70s, is not directly tied to video games, but rather the larger tradition of the penny arcade.
And yet there is something damningly on point in the link between sadistic depravity and playing games. Something that goes beyond the cultural reality of Nemesis, and into the reality of what it means to love games – to identify one’s self primarily as a player of games. Not simply to play games – there is, in the end, no escape from the act of playing games, or even from a fascination with games. But at the end of the day, when it come to Arcade, you’ve got to admit: he’s the very image of a gamer.