Note: this piece was originally intended to be published in early 2013 as a two-part entry at Rhizome magazine online. For reasons that were never communicated to me, only the first part was ever published. Sadly, I've only recently become aware of this, and hopefully publishing the complete version below will compensate for the previous oversight.
The ‘Apollo’ game center near Abeno Station in Osaka is indistinguishable from dozens of others scattered throughout urban Japan, yet is no less compelling for this fact: as far as total sensory environments go, there are few things like it, and the over-abundance of loudly competing sound sources makes it is easy for one to get ‘lost’ in here even with an easily understood floor plan. To that end, the game consoles in this establishment are organized by genre in their own compact micro-districts or “functional clusters” of three or four (an organizational strategy that is seemingly carried out on a much grander scale by Japan’s urban planners.) Slinking gradually from the main entrance to the rear of the establishment, I first have to navigate past a throng of uniformed high school students watching intently as one of their representatives dances for his life on the one-man stage of a Dance Dance Revolution spinoff. Similar dramatic scenes play out on the nearby musical instrument simulators, with wide-eyed and spiky-maned boys proving themselves to their peers by banging stacatto rhythms on replicas of wa-daiko drums, or shredding away on pushbutton-powered guitars. The crowd noticably thins out as I reach a room separated from all this energy expenditure, where an older and more sedentary gaming constituency - either oblivious or indifferent to the hyperactivity in the adjacent room - sits tranquilly in front of tooth enamel-white game consoles housing mah-jongg simulations, or nostalgic arcade hits from the country’s sorely missed “bubble” decade. They languidly go about their business while enjoying canned coffees and Seven Stars cigarettes, huddled in close proximity yet effectively isolated in their private capsules of shuddering screen glow.
However, their disaffected behavior - which, coupled with their standard dress of pressed white shirts and loosened mono-chromatic neckties, makes their leisure time here seem like just an outgrowth of their office workdays - is somewhat misleading: tucked away in their refuge are some of the most nerve-wracking, blood pressure-inflating electronic games yet devised, known in Anglophone fan circles as “manic shooters” but known locally by the more colorful sobriquet danmaku [弾幕、”bullet curtain”.] With their provenance in the Tokyo game workshops of ToaPlan and Cave (the latter rising from the ashes of the former almost immediately after its 1994 declaration of bankruptcy), the games’ common objective is simplicity itself: players, in a single or double configuration, navigate their personal spaceship icons through virtual battlefields of progressive complexity and difficulty while destroying enemy war machines, collecting both points and weapons upgrades for their efforts, and making sure to dodge the considerable amount of enemy fire.
Despite this apparent banality, a minute’s worth of patience will reward the player with an aspect of these games’ visuality that is, in fact, highly unique - even if that uniqueness is merely a matter of taking some familiar visual elements to an extreme of saturated perception. Namely, the “enemy fire” in question greets the player as an amorphous mass of flickering color that seems to take on a life independent of its releasing entities: in the danmaku game, orb- or arrow-shaped projectiles form the atomic units of pulsating, multi-hued latticeworks and arabesques. Sometimes these designs will manifest as screen-swallowing circles with equidistant radii or spokes, or will wheel across the entire screen space in the form of undulating tendrils, or on other occasions will rain down like multi-colored confetti streamers. They will coalesce into individual strands of menacing webs, or spin wildly in double helix formations. In worst-case scenarios, such as the final battle of Cave’s 2004 hit Mushihime-sama [虫姫さま、“Insect Princess”], an uncountable number of angry magenta orbs settle into an oppressive rolling fog, with seemingly no gaps through which to escape.
A teasing, moderately difficult ‘period of emergence’ generally lures players into these more challenging moments: they may be required to fight through a couple of preliminary game levels for the dynamic variation in such patterns to become truly impressive, with the more superlative moments of danmaku exhibition being reserved for one-on-one confrontations with hulking end-of-level “boss” characters (e.g. the stage-climaxing super-villains of Cave’s 2010 tour de force Akai Katana [赤い刀、”Red Blade”] who summon up and hurl massive gunships that unleash their own hot-pink torrents of fire in turn.)
In keeping with the familiar game taxonomy that sees game genres being named for the action involved in them (e.g. “shoot ‘em up”), danmaku games have also been refered to more specifically as danmaku kaishi [弾幕回避, “bullet evasion”] games. Yet whatever relation one has to the ‘bullets,’ it would not be too much of a reckless leap in reasoning to name the “bullet curtains” themselves as the true iconic “stars” or attractions of these games (in most of these games, only cursory efforts are made to weave a narrative around the pilot characters or their antagonists.) Arcade gamers must learn very quickly, in order to make their sacrifice of 100-200 yen a worthy one, to view these tantalizing clusters of glowing globules or phosphorescent spear tips as the primary focus of their visual attention: no matter how well rendered the digital landscapes are in which the action takes place, or how intricately detailed any of the in-game objects may be, they must be treated as a kind of extraneous visual noise. The most successful danmaku players must hone a kind of visual essentialism that recalls the Optical paintings of Tadasuke “Tadasky” Kuwayama: his characteristic ‘concentric circle’ works not only presented an illusion of three-dimensionality, but conferred the illusion of being animated or ‘breathing’ objects as well (we could also refer to 19th-century harmonograph etchings for other designs in which concentric circles appear three-dimensional or spherical.) Showing another kind of kinship with Optical art works, the screen images of flaring bullet curtains can provide the viewer with a ‘post-exhibition exhibition’ in the form of entoptic phenomena: though appearing in a less unequivocally colorful form, the danmaku formations continue to twist and dance beneath closed eyelids for brief post-play periods.
As with previous generations of shooter game, a variety of powerfully destructive ship upgrades are available to the player, which can allow the contestant to match the projectile torrents of the on-screen enemy and mount vicious pre-emptive strikes or counter-attacks, all the while adding more blaring hues to this strange kaleidoscopic portrait of virtual combat. As hinted at above, the games are staggeringly difficult, yet are ‘beatable’ in theory (especially now that quasi-legal ports for arcade emulator software like MAME make it unnecessary to feed hard currency into the machines to prolong one’s virtual life.)
The games are generally finite in terms of levels or stages, as well. Their playership is therefore not playing in order to gain some ontological understanding from the racking up of successive losses; a concept that Shuen-shing Lee identifies as being the prerogative of “second-level model players” (a “specific kind of player [that] is able to realize the implications of ‘to lose’ in an intentionally un-winnable form.”)[i] If there is a ‘masochistic’ component to these games, it can be attributed to the voluntary taxing of one’s eyeballs as much, if not more, than the voluntary entrance into an arena where ignominious defeat is highly likely.
The novelty of facing off against claustrophobia-inducing swarms comprised of dozens of enemy units - whose individually limited attack and defense options combine in daunting examples of emergent cohesion - was already made famous by Williams Electronics’ highly successful run of dystopian blast-‘em-ups, beginning with Robotron 2084  and arguably achieving ‘peak controversy’ with the blood-drenched shooters Smash TV  and N.A.R.C. . The implausible, massively exaggerated, and perversely humorous carnage of the latter two earned them the sort of bipartisan condemnation[ii] that would surface again after the games in the Doom series were revealed as a favorite pasttime of the Columbine High School shooters, and still again in recent months (violent video games being a perennially cited cause of American mass slayings.) In marked contrast with Williams’ arcade hits brimful of gore, the concern with developing games that require destroying or eliminating opponents - yet do not wholesale adopt the sanguinary images of human warfare - has been a component of the Japanese gaming industry since the advent of Space Invaders  itself.[iii] The Japanese gaming industry’s more cautious approach to ultraviolence has not stopped American detractors from critiquing them on other grounds, though (e.g. that the exportation of ‘addictive’ Japanese video games stemmed from a kind of hegemonic, implicitly ‘warlike’ aggression towards the impressionable minds of Western youth.)
I would submit, then, that it is neither the exceptional level of ‘swarming’ and concomitant destruction endemic to danmaku games, nor the difficulty of achieving mastery over them, that make these games qualitatively different from previous variations on the ‘shooter’ game. Rather, it is something else that has always been inextricable from electronic gameplay: namely, these games’ promise of a unique aesthetic that tests the limits of human optics within a simple agonistic framework that may or may not lose its pulling power as players become progressively immersed in the pure experience of flickering color. In the same way that George Slusser once declared cyberpunk fiction to be an “optical prose […] less a world of conflicts than of textures,”[iv] the games thrive more upon the aestheticization of bewilderment than on the commitment to a narrative that unfolds over each successive chapter or game stage. Even the reward mechanisms of certain danmaku titles underscore this emphasis on immersion in shimmering, bewildering beauty over the narrative functions of playing a ‘hero’ role and besting an enemy: see, for example, the technique in ProGear [Cave, 2001] by which the encroaching bullets of an enemy vehicle will, when destroyed by the player’s special attack, transform into a stream of precious gemstones, which are then pulled towards the player’s craft by a kind of magnetic force.
Now, for the sake of not downplaying the fact that these are, at best, hybrids of game and aesthetic object (and for the sake of not assuming readers’ complete familiarity with the recent history of arcade games) some discussion of the games’ strategy and mechanics is necessary here. For those who have spent some time in a video arcade or parked in front of a home gaming console, the mechanics of game play are highly intuitive, using the same control surface of joystick and multiple push buttons that have been used for hundreds of other arcade and home console games. Meanwhile, the top-down and vertically-scrolling view of the onscreen action, largely the preferred ‘camera angle’ for these games, traces its lineage back to one of the very first computer amusements (1962’s Spacewar!), and was later adopted for such gaming industry goldmines as Space Invaders. The latter, of course, stands as one of the highest-grossing coin-operated machines at all time, its runaway popularity allegedly forcing the Japanese mint to ramp up the production of 100-yen coins (the Japanese rail transport system of the time was largely dependent on the use of coin-operated ticket vending machines.)[v]
The flight controlled by players’ 8-direction joysticks is modulated by a built-in limitation that disallows the simultaneous deployment of maximum agility and maximum firepower. In a continual test of “fight ot flight” reflexes, players are required to either sacrifice firepower for agility, or vice versa, as the use of more powerful weapons generally causes a reduction in speed of movement. To this end, a popular control feature of danmaku game play is the alternation between an “A” attack and a “B” attack, with the former being initiated by repeatedly tapping a “fire” button and the latter achieved by holding the same button down continuously. The “A” attack will generally be a sort of standard semi-automatic fire while the “B” attack will vary much more from one vehicle to another: this can manifest as thick neon-colored ropes of homing fire, slowly advancing but powerful explosive drones, enveloping shields that destroy enemy ships on contact, and much more besides.
Danmaku titles, despite a high degree of overlap between their easily intuited control schemes, and the challenges implied by their taxonomic classification, do not share a common template for gameplay or for “look and feel.” While certain of the formative games in the genre (e.g. Toaplan’s Dogyuun or Cave’s Donpatchi and Dangun Feveron ) are the heirs apparent to the overhead, vertically-scrolling ‘camera’ view of earlier airborne action titles, others like the more ‘bullet curtain’-intensive ProGear use a side-scrolling scheme. Meanwhile, the visual style within these the games has gradually deviated from the familiar metal-encrusted worlds depicted in “classics” like Dogyuun or Batsugun [both from ToaPlan, 1991 and 1993 respectively]: ProGear is notable for its distinctly ‘steampunk’ style of anachronistic visuals, Dangun Feveron profers a comically incongruous blend of galactic space travel and disco-dancing imagery, and MushiHime Sama [Cave / AMI, 2004] relies on a persistent ‘insect world’ motif, which conveniently ties in with present-day theorists’ relating the biological “swarm” to artificial intelligence (particularly Jussi Parikka’s contention that the superorganization of the swarm is “more than the sum of its parts…without an overarching organizational principle guiding the actions of the singularities under one umbrella.”)[vi]
So, in danmaku games, we can witness futuristic mechanized conflict as being reduced to pleasurable immersion in sound and light - the latter of which no longer has to be associated with the engines of war emitting it, or indeed burdened with any single message. As Optical artist Getulio Alviani said of his works, light was seen as “a material…never as a metaphor of light,”[vii] and I would argue that danmaku games largely succeed by evoking this same wonderment at the nature and potentiality of light itself. In a way, this merger of explosive violence with an aesthetically satisfying barrage of audio-visual data shares its lineage with another popular feature of public entertainment that appeared well in advance of the electronic age: the ability of fireworks shows to continue drawing crowds in both the video game markets of U.S. and Japan is a clear inspiration upon the visual style of these games. Ultimately, the rapture of fireworks exhbitions come from their euphoria-inducing over-stimulation of the retinae, in spite of their many other intended metaphorical uses: chief among these are their use in royal or imperial coronations, where they are intended to herald the inspiring “brilliance” of the recently crowned (e.g. the 1801 coronation of Czar Nicholas I, or the 1804 coronation of Napoleon.) Their contemporary use in military tributes (the 4th of July holiday) or during the decisive moments of other recreations already laden with ‘battle’ metaphors (championship football games) cannot be overlooked, either. As to the Japanese market in particular, the transient nature of fireworks (romantically noted by Vannoccio Biringuccioin his 16th-century manual de la pirotechnia [On Pyrotechnics])[viii] is perfectly congruent with a national aesthetic built upon the beauty of transience and the transience of beauty. So the fireworks display throughout history is an interesting point of comparison when considering that, like the psychedelic color eruptions of danmaku games, such displays could either be seen as glamorized simulacra of battle or as the carriers of a more abstract message or subjective interpretation. Yet this quirk of 21st-century gameplay does have the potential to be more than a small-screen virtualization of the fireworks show.
If expecting subjective revelations from an arcade game seems far-flung and whimsical - to say nothing of seeing them as sandboxes for aesthetic re-purposing - it might be interesting to consider some comments offered by artist Carsten Nicolai upon recalling the 1965 Op art exhibit “The Responsive Eye” (at which Tadasuke Kuwayama was appropriately featured.) Nicolai claims that “…92% of American households […] had a television the year the [‘Responsive Eye’] exhibition opened. That means that each day, nearly 200 million people were accustomed to seeing or manipulating the lines and grids on test cards in order to calibrate signals for a clear picture, inherently producing moiré effects in the process.”[ix] In other words, the potential reconfiguration of one-way transmitters into personal tools for meditation, for apperceptive study, or for the production of aesthetic novelty was - if somewhat limited - never completely off-limits within those communications media most associated with social control and behavioral manipulation. This is to say nothing of a medium that, unlike television, still offers many ports of entry for dissident ‘amateurs’ and their own re-purposing strategies: this is possible both at the hardware level (e.g. game console hacking) or via the writing and self-releasing of “home-brew” software titles. The latter strategy has already been confirmed by the runaway popularity of the mystical danmaku series “TouHou Project,” a fan-initiated endeavor that has spawned over twenty titles since 1996 and expanded into a separate fictional galaxy of novelizations and comic adaptations.
If we keep in mind the ‘intense illumination’ aspect of popular pyrotechnic entertainments, yet also look to many of the more critical developments of the 20th century avant garde, we can lay the groundwork for a sort of “post-danmaku” form of graphic or video design. Certain pieces of ‘structural film,’ based upon the potential of stroboscopic light to enhance apperception, still provide a working model for much of what has followed in that deceptively ‘minimal’ style of art that seeks to be both literally and figuratively illuminating (this list typically includes Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer (1960), Tony Conrad’s The Flicker (1965) and Paul Sharits’ N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968), all composed almost entirely of rapidly alternating black or white frames, or color frames in Sharits’ case.) This dual form of illumination was itself part of a larger cybernetic shift in the arts that Jack Burnham saw as a transition from an “object-oriented” culture to a “systems-oriented” one: a transition in which “change emanates not from things, but from the way things are done [emphasis in the original].”[x] Sharits’ own thoughts on the equivocal nature of his work could also be applied to ‘retinal overload’ action games, and the unintended uses thereof. To wit: “Flashes of projected light initiate neural transmission as much as they are the analogs of such systems […] the human retina is as much a ‘movie screen’ as the screen proper.”[xi]
Conrad’s now infamous experiment in stroboscopy was a similarly multivalent work that, in one reading of it, transferred the role of film-making from the producer to the audience - like Brion Gysin’s stroboscopic dreamachine project, viewing of Flicker allowed “…the audience themselves provide [the] basis for imagery or composition,”[xii] as it was widely reported that viewing the film would result in varied hallucinations of secondary imagery (interestingly, afterimages produced from viewing were reported as being seen in color rather than monochrome.)[xiii] On further consideration, though, the film’s relation to psychic autonomy was somewhat more complex: as Branden Joseph suggests, the film “would seem to question one’s sense of autonomy as much as it confirms it.”[xiv] That is to say, it had the apperceptive effect of ‘unveiling’ how such technologies could manipulate or even standardize their behavior, yet nonetheless induced nervous responses that were involuntary and either pre-conscious or subconscious.
So, is it possible for to danmaku games to - as Sharits suggests above - simultaneously reveal the mechanics of an electronic medium and the physiological mechanics of our own vision? The tools are ‘out there’ for those who might want to essay a similar type of apperceptive experiment with the luminous little spheresof danmaku as raw materials - or, in the spirit of the structural film history touched upon above, to re-examine the very fundamentals of the gaming experience and to determine how their affective features might apply to other media. For the scripting-savvy, The ‘BulletML’ markup language[xv] offers a means of generating the dense configurations of danmaku featured in the games without necessitating participation in the contests themselves. The module, which uses Python to parse and execute its scripts, is of course intended as a possible addition to the game developers’ toolkits (it has already been used for scaled-down danmaku freeware such as Shiroi Danmaku-kun [白い弾幕くん , “Mr. White Barrage”]), yet it also provides one possible canvas for a gaming-independent form of digital art. From here, it is up to the ingenuity of the programmer / artist to contextualize the results so that, if the artists are so inclined, those results can be more than mere “eye candy” or l’art pour l’art (or, rather, ‘artistic’ phenomena rather than simply ‘aesthetic’ ones.) Certainly, this is a criticism that has been voiced of Optical works from their inception to the present, with critics like Bulat Galeyev wondering out loud if “all these experiments with […] moiré [and] kaleidoscopic effects are some sort of technocratized happening or an intellectual circus; the acrobatics of idle minds.”[xvi]
Galeyev’s concerns are well founded, and he grappled with them not only with theoretical writing but also with his own body of Optical and Kinetic artworks. Maybe there is a more pressing concern to deal with today, though, and that is the situation in which artists’ generation of cultural and aesthetic changes take a backseat to meta-technological commentary, or in which cultural and aesthetic changes are seen as not being as important or meaningful as advancements in information dispersal and etherealization. In short, a kind of l’art pour la technologie that itself sees technology as some consciousness acting apart from human agency and seeking to slowly transform us into its appendages or its double. Contrasted with this perceived singular aim, the history of Optical art (if we allow for fireworks shows and the 1960s flicker films to take part in that official history) is largely one of simplicity in design concealing a greater multiplicity of intentions and interpretations; one in which an inventory of physiological and psychological effects - rather than the inventory of tools that such effects can inspire - will remain its true legacy. If some sublime re-appropriation of the danmaku game should eventually be seen as part of it, it should come as no surprise. Jean-Claude Lebensztejn warned, in his assessment of The Flicker, that “to play with the thresholds of perception is to play with fire,”[xvii] yet this is as much an encouragement to artists open to radical ambiguity as it is a warning, and the ‘fire curtains’ of digital games are no less useful in this threshold-testing process than those raw materials already accepted by the cutting edge of cultural production.
- Thomas Bey William Bailey, January 2013
[i] Shuen-shing Lee, “I Lose, Therefore I Think: A Search for Contemplation amid Wars of Push-Button Glare.” Available online at http://www.gamestudies.org/0302/lee/. Retrieved January 10, 2013.
[ii] Though not citing Smash TV or N.A.R.C. specifically, I would point to the sentiments expressed in Simon Gottschalk’s protests as exemplary of the leftist critique of these games. See “Video-Games as Postmodern Sites/Sights of Ideological Reproduction” (Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 18, No. 1 [Spring 1995], pp. 1-18.) Protests from the center or right have gained much more traction in mainstream news reportage, and so I hope my readers will forgive me for not revisiting these arguments here.
[iii] However, this is far from an absolute assessment, and even Space Invaders’ parent company Taito has portrayed conventional warfare with titles such as the WWII fighter plane simulator Sky Destroyer (1983) and the Uzi-powered ‘commando thriller’ Operation Wolf (1987).
[iv] George Slusser, “Literary MTV.” Mississippi Review, Vol. 16, No. 2/3 (1988), pp. 279-288.
[v] See http://www.numismaster.com/ta/numis/Article.jsp?ad=article&ArticleId=24643. Retrieved January 10, 2013.
[vi] Jussi Parikka, Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology, p. 47. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis / London, 2010.
[vii] Getulio Alviani quoted in Carsten Nicolai, “The Responsive Eye: Beyond What We Call ‘Art.’” Flash Art, March / April 2011, pp. 74-76.
[viii] “Fireworks had no otherpurpose than amusement and endured no longer than the kiss of a loverfor a lady, if as long.” Quoted in Suzanne Boorsch, “Fireworks!: Four Centuries of Pyrotechnics in Prints & Drawings.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Summer, 2000), pp. 3-52.
[ix] Nicolai (2011.)
[x] Jack Burnham, “Systems Esthetics.” Artforum Vol. & No. 1 (September 1968), pp. 30-35.
[xi] Paul Sharits, "General Statement for 4th International Experimental Film Festival, Knokke-Le Zoute." Film Culture, No. 47 (1969), p. 13.
[xii] Tony Conrad quoted in Branden W. Joseph, Beyond The Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage, p. 301. Zone Books, New York, 2008.
[xiii] Regina Cornwell, “Structural Film: Ten Years Later.” The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 23, No. 3, Structuralist Performance Issue (Sep., 1979), pp. 77-92.
[xiv] Ibid. (Branden W. Joseph), p. 299.
[xv] See http://www.asahi-net.or.jp/~cs8k-cyu/bulletml/index_e.html. Retrieved January 11, 2013.
[xvi] Bulat M. Galeyev, “Musical-Kinetic Art in the USSR.” Leonardo Vol. 24, No. 1 (1991), pp. 41-47.
[xvii] Jean-Claude Lebensztejn quoted in Joseph, p. 298.