Meditations on the forgotten or overlooked corners of media
Saffi is a lesbian hyperspace dragon who has to rescue her girlfriend Eleza from evil robots. That’s it. That’s the video game. It’s a shoot ’em up, as Saffi flies through a colorful space opera, kills the aforementioned evil robots, and rescues other queer dragons like Tranra and Pan. Rescuing dragons grants you power ups like a charge beam or a dash attack. Let’s be honest, this is kind of cringe. It’s the sort of presentation of queerness that centers a wholesome cuteness, while skipping past the real difficulties and tensions of queer community. The thing is, at least for me, Heartfire is pretty endearing. It has the same energy as something like Gayblade, a re-contextualization of a classic game genre except very single part of it is gay. It’s cringe as in Sonic OC, not cringe as in the infantalization of non-binary people. You could maybe read a lot into collecting other queer peoples powers as you rescue them, as well as only being able to hold one of their abilities at a time, but that’s missing the point. At the end, the game does argue that queer people are stronger together than apart, and it does so with the warmth of dragon fire and the blasting of cold homophobia. We are still living in the midst of the demonization of trans and non-binary people. In that world, even a shallow appeal to solidarity is far from nothing.
Arcade shooters, like most video games, carry the weight of the military industrial complex. Classics in the genre like Contra or Wild Guns have a imaginary and ideological base centered in imperial capitalism. Decolonators offers a simple change in theme. Instead of an 80s action hero, you play as a dirty commie, a Vietnamese fighter who blows away the “good boys” of the American Army and Schwarzenegger look alikes. It’s refreshing and powerful to see John McCain made a cackling villain in the very war that made him a “hero.” Or to be able to render Margret Thatcher into a bloody shred. The result is pure propaganda catharsis. It struck me how often the Vietnam war is portrayed as a tragedy for the American soldiers who went there, and how faceless the suffering and death of the Vietnamese usually is. Decolonators is a simple but effective reworking of that image, making the nameless loss of a “distant alien nation” into a vivid, human rage.
You are a knight errant, exploring the wasted remnants of a dead empire. A familiar premise perhaps, but something stranger than that lies beneath. The sounds give the difference away, all concrete and rebar and tile and rust. The game opens with the knight awakening in a room of tile, with an constant hum like an AC unit or a furnace ringing through its small span. Open a wire fence gate and it screams in metal. These places are old but they are made of new materials, swinging above interstates, swallowed in the concrete of a world that has perhaps seen something like a twentieth century.
Abyssal’s apocalypse is not a plague, not the rendering of some vulnerable population, but rather the encounter with creatures that “don’t think in other.” Within the bounds of the game there is no “natural world.” The stone giants that rose up from the world are imprisoned in concrete. Some flood occurred long ago, and now echoes of it envelop stark empty structures. What traces of plant life are always absent, a photograph of an shine of an angel in a field, a desert below the rest of the world. It is all the implication of a past life, only echoes remain here now. After all, “One cannot tell if this is a shrine, cell, or catacomb.”
Even echoes are physical, an actor in a material world. Your knight may be the only thing that is “alive” but it is not the only force to be reckoned with. When you first encounter others and the game asks you to take up arms, you don’t have to. You can walk alongside the ghost warriors, who will only watch, not you, but some other thing in the blackness. Maybe the earth is dead, but it is still haunted.
In some sense, we are already living in the memory of a earth that will change. For what has yet to be determined. But we can walk down the street and wonder at houses or apartments or corner stores. What used to be there? What had to die so that this material undead could stand, could contain the echoes of life inside it?
0_abyssalSomewhere takes place in a world where it is perhaps too late to not “think in other.” At least, a knight, a vestige of the old world, is an improper soldier for such a mission. We do not have to imprison those impulses in concrete, we can acknowledge the life of earth even as we reshape it, we can see ourselves as part of the world, not separate from it.
But the Abyssal can offer no way forward, no motion to change the world. Instead it just asks to look, to look at a dying place and see what once lives there. The only comfort this game can provide is that something will remain after we are gone.