Heroes + Villains: All Powered Up
A few weeks ago, a graphic novel by Doug TenNapel landed in my mailbox. While I knew TenNapel from comics, I had totally forgotten about his videogame resume. That was a big mistake. As a game designer, he's responsible for the beloved Earthworm Jim franchise and the PC adventure game The Neverhood.
What's interesting about TenNapel's creative output is the way that he creates yearning, elastic protagonists with a desire for meaning or purpose. This desire often causes them to physically or spiritually change shape. Think of the sweetly silent Klaymen, hero of The Neverhood, whose curiosity starts him on his journey; or Earthworm Jim, with a super-spacesuit that is literally a portal to a life of adventure. Both get squashed, stretched and zapped in order to become who they were truly meant to be.
It's the same for Hugh Randolph. He's the protagonist of "Power Up," TenNapel's latest graphic novel. Randolph works in a copy shop while he tries to perfect a pitch for a game that he has been working on at home. One day, after work, the husband and father picks up an experimental game console at the estate sale of a dead inventor. He soon discovers that the console makes power-up spheres manifest in the real world, and his life changes considerably.
On the surface, "Power Up" is a slightly cheesy fable about the danger of taking shortcuts in life. But it also manages to spur thoughts about how the videogame medium has evolved.
"Power Up" resonates because one never really outgrows the desire for wish fulfillment -- even in the fictional construct of a game. Even as I'm putting my Fight Night Round 4 boxer through his paces, I yearn that I could skip my training or that my punches could deal more damage. The power-up concept has changed in gaming. It's no longer the kind of mechanic that TenNapel pays homage to in "Power Up" -- where you wander through a landscape and suddenly find special items. Most games nowadays force you through a regimen to sharpen the way you interact with their mechanics.
You start with a tutorial, practice skills in the game world, and learn new ways to use those skills as the challenge slowly builds. And while perfecting a given skill can make you extremely formidable, you'll still have a range of vulnerabilities. My Fight Night boxer can train and train and train to earn a devastating right hook, but his weak chin or feeble gut still make him very beatable.
This illustrates a shift -- from a magic item that players stumble upon to a repetitive skill-ladder that players must climb to achieve mastery. That shift parallels how the focus of game design has changed, with technical acumen winning out over flights of fancy. The games of the 8-bit era may have fired your imagination differently than modern ones, with their pickups that instantly granted power, but real life doesn't work like that.
Some kind of tether back to the real world seems to be an unspoken imperative for modern videogames -- in the logic a game's narrative tries to create, in the hyper-reality of its visual texture or in its characters' dialogue.
The loopy aesthetic of the old-school console games gives way to more grind-intensive dynamics. No more easy jackpots. It's an odd kind of maturity, one that mirrors the way that many gamers are getting older and having to schedule their button-mashing obsessions around other responsibilities.
Take TenNapel's graphic novel. Unlike other texts in which videogames and fantasy fulfillment meet up, the book's key figure is an adult. At first, Randolph uses the console's magic abilities in relatively harmless ways. After he gets a promotion at Kopyko's, his unibrowed boss tasks him with getting rid of a harmless older employee. Hugh uses an invisibility globe to make the codger disappear, and lies to his boss about firing him.
But the allure of cheating through the game of life leads him down a slippery slope. When he tries to convince his wife Val that he's got things under control, the sphere he's carrying -- because he's deep in the throes of a power-up jones -- accidentally explodes and gives him tentacle arms. The power-ups in the book could represent the games of the real world. Games are items that we stumble upon in the real world that make us feel powerful. If we abuse them, however, other parts of our life will deteriorate.
"Power Up" gives you more than enough to chuckle at if you're someone juggling the duties of an adult life with the pleasures of electronic entertainment. But it's also a blunt allegory about needing to create a balance between hard work, dreams and personal responsibility. Hugh uses the power-ups to become wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, only to have his behavior alienate his wife and best friend. It's not enough to have a dream; it's also important to achieve it through reasonable means.
That moral speaks to the evolution of how players have attained power in videogames. Take a game like Crackdown. Fifteen years ago, you'd have a gotten a giant globe that ramped up your law-enforcement agent's skills at the end of a level. Now, you have to scour the game world methodically to level up. In the first part of "Power Up," Randolph's abuse of the souped-up spheres has made him rich very quickly. But Hugh ultimately chooses to abandon the magic console to do the hard work of juggling family, employment and aspirations.
No more easy jackpots. They were fun when we were collectively younger, but the time for them may have passed us by. The subliminal message of "Power Up" may be that the most convincing way to create stable fantastical structures -- and attain the dreams or escapes that they promise -- is to leaven them with reality.