Service Games

  • Reading time:5 min(s) read
Jeremy Parish muses over the NES ports of SNK’s Athena and Taito’s Arkanoid

Watching Jeremy Parish doing his best to defend a game he clearly does not enjoy, a bunch of things are clicking into place for me, suddenly, about the role of performance and execution in the allistic mind, compared to theory and intent.

For most people, what you mean to do, have to say, is all well and good—but even at their most generous they have trouble caring all that much unless it’s presented to them on their own terms. They almost seem to take personal offense when someone doesn’t bend over backwards to predict what they want and have it all ready and waiting, fixed exactly the way they know they like it best, before they arrive.

Whereas to my mind at least, polish is… fine? Like, it can be a nice last thing to help with clarity of vision. But what I’m most interested in is what the message is, what someone has to say. I don’t tend to assume that things are about me, for me, because nothing ever is.

The things that give me life are the most developed, interesting, original visions—which often are difficult to communicate and need some level of intent engagement. If that’s not there, and all I see is polish, it’s, there’s nothing to engage with. I don’t see the point at all.

Athena I find an endlessly fascinating game, in part because it’s so impenetrable. There’s so much going on here, so much I’ll maybe never fully understand, and that’s amazing to me. Arkanoid is also-good, but that’s almost entirely because of its vision. The clarity of its execution does little to improve communication of its vision, so it doesn’t really fuss me one way or another—except to make me nod and say, oh, yeah, I get it; interesting. I find myself thinking about it far less, ergo it occupies less space in my mind. With the game taking up less space, inspiring fewer synapses to take root, it gives me less fuel for general Understanding of Stuff. Less of a sense of wonder. Less of a sense of something bigger, even than the game’s own ideas. (Again, though, Arkanoid is pretty wonderful itself.)

And, you know. In the exceedingly rare instance when something does appear to cater to me, it rankles the heck out of my suspicions. And often with good reason. It’s almost always toying with me, and I almost always feel used at the end of the exchange.

The works that are all head-down and almost totally unconcerned with how they come off to other people because they’re so focused on exploring a notion that they’ve hit on, those are the most absolutely exciting things, and I just wanna be friends with them.

Granted, Micronics (the one-bedroom company that handled the notorious NES ports of several early Capcom and SNK titles) is awful. No way I’m gonna defend their coding. But I don’t see what that has to do with the ideas at play; it’s just another systemic barrier. Like, to me there’s a big difference between dismissing Athena, the game, and dismissing Micronics’ coding on Athena. Yeah, it’s an absolutely barfy port—but enough about that; what’s going on with the game is…

Anyway. This mode of engagement here, this allistic impatience with the strange and expectation for service, it ties into issues of abuse in past relationships, and into observations about privilege and expectations about media and shaping of information—like how white cishet men go apeshit when things aren’t specifically made for them. This all also further ties queerness to neurodivergence…

There are degrees to everything, of course. Parish is behaving entirely reasonable in this video, and makes some sincere effort to engage with the merits and ways-of-thought of even the more inscrutable of the two games. But I think in the clear effort that he shows to be fair, he kinda illustrates the issue.

Like, the dynamics become very clear: Athena is a strange game that doesn’t make much of an effort to explain itself, and it takes a supreme amount of patience for him to cut through that and engage with its perspective as well as he can. And he’s clearly not thrilled with the task.

To put maybe too fine a point on it, the attitude that Athena receives in this video, it’s sorta, well, it’s the best I feel I usually can hope for in treatment myself, from most people. And this level of patience is pretty uncommon, because of the effort it takes. Most people aren’t used to having to do this all the time.

Being autistic, of course, I am! It’s the only way I understand anyfuckingthing. And so if I’m gonna put the same effort into just comprehending-at-all a glossy surface with limbo behind it as I do a rusty shell filled with wonder and mystery, I’m gonna invest my energy where it’ll do me the most good.

(I’ve always been drawn to archaeology and lost information that has to be puzzled together. The thing that really got me into Doctor Who, after multiple efforts to engage me, was the return of “The Lion” in 1999 and stumbling into the whole missing episode situation.)

There’s a certain magic to puzzles. If by the act of engaging with a thing I understand it into existence, and am able to help communicate its ideas more widely, I feel like I’ve made the world a little better. Like all of the supreme effort it takes just to live has a purpose.

Which I guess also explains the kinds of writing I’ve done over the years…