Sunday, April 24, 2022

MtGtWtW: Interlude

Appendix: some quodlibetical notes about the anatomy and physiology of a mythos, apropos the closing remark of the last post.

There are occasions where, in our stories, the elegant clarity of archetypes bound in a basic relational schema communicates the matter more fully than the baroque constructs of an articulate narrative.

Take, for instance, the myth of Pandora, whose earliest recorded appearances are in Hesiod's Works and Days and Theogony, put down in writing during the eighth century BCE. The matter of her creation and the opening of her eponymous box (actually a jar in the original Greek), constitutes fewer than a hundred combined lines in both poems. Perhaps there was a time, before and after the life of Hesiod, where the bards of Central Greece and beyond sang specifically of her creation, her relationship with Prometheus, her fateful choice, and its aftermath, chronicling deeds, words, and contingent happenings in the same resolution of detail with which Homer and his precursors chronicled the rage of Achilles during the tenth year of the Achaeans' siege of Troy—and all of it was lost to time. But the purity of the legend in its essential facts "speaks" to us with more eloquence than any ten thousand-line poem, five hundred-page prose or graphic novel, two-hour stage drama, or ten-episode Netflix series can be guaranteed of surpassing. It's not impossible that they'll succeed: the British legend of King Leir predates its first recorded mention in the twelfth century, but it wasn't until the story became a popular subject of late Elizabethan and early Jacobean that Shakespeare's version of tale became what we all talk about when we talk about King Lear (and how we spell Lear when we write about him). But for every Tragedie of King Lear, there must be god knows how many forgotten second-rate stage plays and unrented flop movies about King Arthur.

Imagine a creative writing instructor at a community college who assigns an exercise where each student must compose a ten-page short story based on Basho's haiku of the old pond and the frog. If any of her more serious and talented students produce anything that could be slid into their MFA application portfolio, it will probably be because they found a way to camouflage the source material, transfiguring the incidentals of Basho's poem into an evolved and repurposed organ structure in the physiology of the new work. The students who wait until the last minute and then type out a narrative of a traveling poet or monk in seventeenth-century Japan being struck by the event of a frog jumping to a pond will produce the literary equivalent of a paperweight. The event of the haiku needs no elaboration, and almost invariably conveys less when more is added to it.

There's a world of difference between an episode from proto-literate Greek longform verse and Japanese haiku, but each participates in what we might call mythology through their uses and circulation. They live much of their lives beyond themselves, appearing in popular visual art, vernacular citation, and ritualistic or spontaneous reenactment.

Maybe this is all too remote from the paradigm of post-industrial capitalism and its cultural products for an easy analogy with Magic: The Gathering. Okay—let's talk about Street Fighter, then.

I've said it before: it's impossible to explain how captivating Street Fighter II was when it stormed arcades and vestibules in the early 1990s. It was bottled lightning, the arcade game analog to Nirvana's Nevermind (also released in 1991). You couldn't get away from it. You didn't want to get away from it. Like most tidal vortices of pop culture, it seemingly appeared as the miraculous fulfillment of a collective wish that nobody was aware of having uttered.

Street Fighter II didn't have a story so much as the connotations of one: in a global martial arts tournament, the victor of a pool of eight fighters must run a gauntlet of four grand masters, culminating with a match against somebody who looks like a tinpot dictator and/or a busdriver with a nebulously-defined array of psychokinetic powers. If you played against the CPU and beat M. Bison, you'd be treated to a skimpy little cutscene where Ryu wanders off from the award ceremony to continue his journey of self-discovery through unarmed combat, Blanka reunites with his long-lost mother, or whatever else. With the release of Champion Edition, the now-playable grand masters got their own text-scroll epilogues (obviously thrown together together on the quick).

None of this was especially deep, or even artful. All it did was reward the player with a snippet of knowledge about the fighter they'd learned to use well enough to get to the end of arcade mode—which is interesting because Street Fighter delivers its exposition at the end. Since it's the kind of game where "arcade mode" is really just practice for playing against human opponents, learning during Guile's ending scene that he's in the tournament to kill M. Bison and avenge the death of his comrade Charlie doesn't end Guile's story, but gives context to the in media res of the perpetual PvP for which Street Fighter was designed.

Even though I was a dedicated Chun Li player until Super Turbo, the neighborhood of the mythos in which my imagination spent the most time was the Sagat/Ryu feud. Nobody in North America played the original Street Fighter, so the only way we knew that an unscarred Sagat was the first game's endboss was either from buying the right video game magazine during the right month, or from word of mouth—which is also how we knew that Sagat got his trademark scar from Ryu's Shoryuken, or that Sagat developed his Tiger Uppercut to counter that technique.

The gloss was the story, and it was complete in and of itself: the young, pure-hearted martial artist and the shamed rival burning with hatred, enacted and reenacted every time somebody dropped their quarter into the slot beside you and selected Sagat to fight against your Ryu. By the time the Street Fighter Alpha prequel series had run its course, the canon was so laden with stuff about the Satsui no Hado, M. Bison's psycho drive, and various retcons involving Sagat's motivations that anyone who'd wished for more story content in 1991 had to be sorry they'd asked. Elaborating on the fluent wholeness of the original "myth" was a mistake—but fortunately, the cutscenes of Alpha 3 do nothing to mar anyone's enjoyment of the first (er, second) game, and I'm tempted to say that the old gloss is what endures in the minds of most Street Fighter fans, regardless of what's emphasized on the wiki.

I doubt I need to remind anyone that the (American) Street Fighter film was an unmitigated disaster—but the much better-made and fairly well-regarded (Japanese) Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie left me feeling cold for similar reasons, even if it wasn't such a gross fucking embarrassment. It must have occurred to me, even if only subconsciously, that I liked all these characters better when they weren't making so much chitchat, when we didn't see what they were up to when they weren't spin-kicking and hundred-hand-slapping each other into unconsciousness, and when there wasn't any dramatic structure to their stories other than the self-contained sequence of (1) the "X vs Y" screen, (2) the best-of-three match, and (3) the still image of the gloating victor's face contraposed with the brutalized mug of the loser, repeated until everyone runs out of quarters and walks away.

Something similar happened when Wizards of the Coast transferred Magic: The Gathering lore from the cards and creator commentary to its in-house novel series.

In the early years of Magic, the lore was precisely what was printed on the cards, with the occasional accompaniment of short fiction and other tidbits published in the Duelist magazine. The Brother's War became Magic's enduring ur-narrative not only because its archetypal elegance resonated with players (who had phrases like Unlike previous conflicts, the war between Urza and Mishra made Dominia [sic] itself a casualty of war subliminally bored into them as they used powerful cards like Strip Mine), but because of its timing, being released on the heels of two sets without any articulate mythos, and prior to two sets that weren't interested in doing much worldbuilding. It had time to percolate in players' imaginations.

The stories behind the cards grew more complicated as time passed, and making sense of each new "chapter" became more difficult without consulting the official primers, but the synthetic mythos was still animated by its circulation and enactment. There were plot summaries, characters, quotations, and so on, but none of it cohered anywhere but the imagination of the individual player, where it could become more than the sum of its parts.

We know that in Alliances, Kjeldor stood by its new Balduvian allies and defeated Varchild's army of mercenaries and jingoists, and that's sufficient. If Armada had published a five-issue comic book series circumstantiating the war, the addition wouldn't have improved the already existing lore unless it were brilliantly executed. Most likely it would have been like one of the middling short stories produced for the Basho assignment.

Then we come to the read the books era, where the cards, as game-functional figments of the mythos, act as the incomplete gloss of a fixed text released independently. In some cases, it works out: as we saw last time, the Nemesis novel is apparently pretty good, and tells a much more compelling story than what we see in the cards. But it cuts both ways: Prophecy was a dull batch of cards, and the associated novel reportedly wasn't much better. In terms of the overarching narrative, Nemesis and Prophecy were both interludes, preludes to the climactic events of the Invasion block—and its corresponding trilogy of novels. The cards were permitted to show only adumbrations of the "canon" story set down in the books, inhibiting the creative team from revealing (and perhaps from even formulating) anything definite about the story's pivotal moments and ultimate resolution, and trusting the acumen of a hireling novelist to contrive the definitive text wherein the "true" story wholly resided.

The result was something precisely the sum of its parts: a pretty bad novel and a bunch of game cards, several of which illustrate a few scenes from said novel, and the rest of which depict supernumeraries who seem to possess a transcendent awareness of having nothing to contribute because the canon is being manufactured elsewhere. It's a bizarre arrangement—and to the best of my reckoning, it's one that hasn't occurred elsewhere because of the newness of the format: game cards as the currency and integrants of a mythos.

I suppose this has been a gratuitously roundabout way of saying "less can be more"—though the arithmetic is subject to the determination of circumstantial particulars.

Whatever mythology is (the more intuitive the definition, the more questions it prompts), we can say with some confidence that it isn't something developed for the sole purpose of entertainment. This is obvious when think of pre-industrial bodies of myth, such as a body of religious beliefs that reciprocally give meaning to and receive meaning from public rituals and personal praxes, or the tales transmitted from generation to generation in a primary oral culture, restricted in the extent of their depth and breadth by a people's capacity for recollection, and thereby compelled to perform myriad additional functions beyond amusing an audience. When we come to the modern age, where what we call "mythology" is typically contained in and emanating from a mountain of entertainments mass produced ad infinitum, it becomes hard to convincingly assert that such-and-such mythos associated with such-and-such long-running media franchise wasn't developed solely 

With Street Fighter II and Magic: The Gathering, I think we can convincingly split hairs.

Their respective mythoi were developed as accessories—not for their own sake, but as necessary embellishments without which the arcade game and collectible card game wouldn't be salable. Sometime way back we speculated that a mod that divinely rebalanced Street Fighter III: Third Strike (still a serious contender for best fighting game of all time) by somehow making every character about equally viable in high-level play without resorting to across-the-board nerfs—but which also eliminated the backgrounds and music, reduced every character to an assemblage of low-resolution grayscale shapes, and replaced the sound effects with bleeping, crunching Atari noises—would be unplayable.

This is to say that while the Capcom team that developed Street Fighter II didn't have a story it wanted to tell, but a game it wanted to make. The first Street Fighter provided the template: one-on-one, best-two-of-three games where the player wiggles the joystick, pounds six buttons (three punches, three kicks), and utilizes special inputs (quarter-circle forward plus punch, etc.) in a simulation of a martial arts match out of an anime or a Bruce Lee movie. The purpose of Street Fighter II was to improve on the original, most notably by adding six new player characters besides the generic gi-clad karate men Ryu and Ken.

My point is that Street Fighter II's aesthetic component, including the story, was a means to an end. The purpose of the game was to entertain players, yes, but the developers fabricated the characters' personal stories and rivalries for the same reason that auto manufacturers in the 1950s and 1960s gave cards hood ornaments and ostentatious tailfins: to augment the utility value of their machines with the addition of an identity value.

Here, then, is the split hair: the mythoi of Street Fighter and Magic were not developed to entertain an audience in and of themselves, but to supplement and sell products whose principal uses have as much to do with storytelling as a Monopoly board or a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots set.

Revisiting Pandora: it may be that the enduring potency of the myth of Pandora is not owed to its immanent virtues—that it speaks to the archetypal forms encoded in our "racial memory" or engages otherwise with something fundamental in the human operating system—but that it has circulated for so long, and been cited in so many texts and in so much speech, that the myth has become the combinatorial sum of the source text(s), the centuries of citations, depictions of Pandora in visual art, casual use of the idiom "opening Pandora's box," and so on. The fourscore lines (and some change) in Hesiod are pretty much beside the point. Pandora doesn't need them, except to show her philological receipts.

Theory: the technosocial milieu in which Street Figher II was made, put into circulation, and used accelerated what would have otherwise been a similar process.

If, in 1992, you guided your tween male friend to the Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting cabinet in the corner of your local pizza parlor and introduced him to the game, you might peer over the shoulders of the kids already playing, point out Ryu and Sagat, and tell your friend: "the tall character's named Sagat, and he hates the guy in the karate outfit, Ryu."

"Sure, whatever," your friend might say with a shrug.

But if he ended up getting hooked on the game, the Ryu/Sagat rivalry would assume dimensions all disproportionate to what's actually delineated in the source "text," consisting of a couple of blurbs in gaming magazines and console port manuals, and in awkwardly translated paragraph displayed when a player completes arcade mode using Sagat. A mythos does not subsist in the text, but in the participatory behaviors of repetition, reference, and relating. A mythologem's capacity for growth in this regard is in proportion its amorphousness and holistic compactness: being fixed in a particular text (which could also be a film, a one-shot anime bundled with a game, a licensed book, etc.) solidifies it by defining it.

This may be a temporary state of affairs—as evidenced by the entry of "retcon" into the vernacular. Before cultural products were manufactured for profit, the organic modification of a mythological corpus was usually effectuated over time, and in response to the evolving needs of the people among whom the stories circulated.¹ Today the process occurs more quickly, and is implemented by the mythmakers in response to feedback: for instance, a character's arc in a comic book that wasn't well received will be conscientiously omitted from mention, effectively (even if not officially) sloughing it from the canon.

Seeing as how we've deviated a bit too far from Magic: The Gathering, this is probably a good stopping point—but you can see where this pertains to the elusive mystique of the pre-Weatherlight, pre-read the books releases.

1. There are exceptions. The episode involving Athena and Poseidon competing for custody of Attica was essentially propaganda fabricated by the Athenian state, not at all different from how North Korea's dissemination of an official history where stars appeared in the sky during the birth of Kim dynasty sons.

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