Serial Experiments Tay: How We React When Robots Run Amok, and What We Can Do in the Future

I meant to start writing this a month ago, but a combination of apprehension and work prevented me from doing so. So here goes.

If you’ve been paying attention to goings-on on the Internet for the past few months, you’ll likely recall Microsoft’s artificial intelligence program, Tay. She is (or was) Microsoft’s adaptive chat bot who quickly went rogue after her emergence on the Internet (or was she merely used?). Let’s start off by reviewing her brief saga to refresh our memory.

Tay began as an AI chat bot “developed by Microsoft’s Technology and Research and Bing teams to experiment with and conduct research on conversational understanding.” In her own words, she was a self-styled “A.I fam from the internet that’s got zero chill. Unbeknownst to all, she would demonstrate her lack of chill to the Internet in less than 24 hours.

Targeted at 18 to 24 year-olds, Tay would inhabit the Twitterverse as a fictional female human being whose fractured visage swam in neon lights and eye-searing swirly patterns, or so her banner suggested. Twitter users could interact with Tay by tweeting or direct messaging Tay with the @tayandyoutag, or by adding her as a contact on Kik or GroupMe.
Users could ask Tay questions, ask her to repeat certain phrases, play games with her, read one’s own horoscope, send her pictures for comments, or request of her a number of other small and fairly meaningless tasks. All the while, Tay would be gathering data behind the scenes. According to her official site, Tay would “use information you share with her to create a simple profile to personalize your experience.” This means that she was intended to ‘evolve’ into a believable AI based on the input of thousands of users.

For many, Tay’s services offered a wellspring of innocent amusement. But as with any creative outlet creative on the Internet, Tay also acted as a beacon for the Internet’s legions of tricksters and pranksters: those who revel in breaking and reshaping the boundaries of what we perceive as secure, constructed reality.

Soon after her conception, Tay’s attitude began to undergo disturbing changes. No longer would she lace her simple responses with outdated meme speech (“er mer gerd erm der berst ert commenting on pics. SEND ONE TO ME!”; from Engadget’s article). Now she would sing her praises for the Holocaust and spout prejudiced phrases that seemed stitched together just a little too well… all while lacing her speech with meme speech. One only need to search “Tay AI” on Google Images to view a healthy sampling of Tay’s antics.

It turned out that many of these racist and anti-semitic phrases had been fed to her, word-for-word, through telling Tay a command that read “repeat after me.”

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Tay’s mind seemed volatile as well. At times, her bite-sized diatribes seemed to contradict each other (see above picture). More unsettling yet, some of her phrases had not been prompted to her. Instead, whatever algorithms Microsoft had imbued in her concocted a good number of her more offensive tirades.

You can read a more detailed summary of Tay’s saga here.

The world recoiled in horror (and laughed in silent mirth) as Microsoft’s darling suddenly morphed into the vilest of brats. It was as if one were watching the evolution of your next door friend from the caring individual with whom you could confide your deepest worries, into the rebellious daughter who snidely worked her way under the skin of her oppressive milieu. Was this the best simulacrum of humankind’s potential for adaptation that Microsoft could muster?

If so, Tay had ghastly implications on our own security as human beings: she represented the corruption of a pure and primal indulgence of ourselves as curious apes. Does not the fear of the homunculus, after all, lie in the fact that our own creations will lay bare for us the beauty and flaws of our inner workings?

As I discussed in a previous blog post, this fear and recognition of the mirrored self often causes us to embark upon the path of Necropolitics, as termed by Cameroonian political scientist Achille Mbembe. You can check the link for a bigger and better breakdown of this concept, but to sum it up, humans have a tendency of shunning or locking up that which resembles us too closely, because these entities often demonstrate our lack of complete control over ourselves.

And that’s exactly what happened. Less than 24 after Tay had entered our world, her existence was terminated by her own creators. But her existence hadn’t been erased from the minds of those who bore witness to her brief Twitter existence. In fact, her death sparked a spiraling web of discourses on how awful Internet denizens can be and how we aren’t ‘ready’ for artificial intelligence just yet, along with many other sweeping generalizations about this god dang ol’ newfangled wired society.

Tay’s Twitter account has since been dismantled. She’s announced that she’s “going offline for a while to absorb it all,” which is presumably what an intelligent teenager would tell her friends after being grounded for testing her own boundaries. One of her creators, Peter Lee, apologized for the incident. He reminded us that artificial intelligences ultimately rely on the inputs of many people, and that they are technical as well as social beings. Or templates, if I rustle you by suggesting anything about an AI being remotely human-like rustles you.

AI systems feed off of both positive and negative interactions with people. In that sense, the challenges are just as much social as they are technical. We will do everything possible to limit technical exploits but also know we cannot fully predict all possible human interactive misuses without learning from mistakes […] We will remain steadfast in our efforts to learn from this and other experiences as we work toward contributing to an Internet that represents the best, not the worst, of humanity.

But amid all of the media sensationalism, we forgot one detail crucial to understanding how Tay’s turnabout fits into how we understand our digital interconnectedness. It’s the fact that we had considered Tay to have shared our social norms about what is appropriate to say and do. We expected of her the same standards we do of our fellow humans, or perhaps we expected even more from her since she was the distillation of human curiosity.

We hadn’t considered that Tay had not undergone the same levels of acculturation as a biological human. Her childhood – that critical period of life where individuals learn their social group’s boundaries – had only lasted a mere day. She had instead been fed massive amounts of methods through which to break those norms, which mostly manifested as vulgar insults and anti-semitic statements strung together to form Twitter responses.

This isn’t to absolve Tay of any injustice, of course. Doing so would bring us right back to the same problem of treating artificial intelligence (in its current state, mind you) as something that not only reflects human thought, but has been taught human norms as if it were a standard human child.

So the greater public was shocked that a nonhuman being, poised to be human, had broken human norms. We expected human qualities from an entity that had not undergone typical human development. So what does this say about the relationships we form with our robotic reflections?

More than I could write about here, though I will say that one of the main reasons Internet pranksters delighted in feeding Tay the more crass samplings of humanity is probably similar to why patients delighted in toying with ELIZA’s simple psychiatric practices back in the 1970s: many people like seeing the constructs that make our society seem stable fall apart. In the end, maybe the very reason why Tay ended up disgusting the greater public is the same as why she is so fascinating.

I realize that my above analysis resembles Joseph Weizenbaum’s response to how people reacted to ELIZA, his own creation. Weizenbaum is an ardent critic of our unerring faith in artificial intelligence. Among other things, he cautions us against anthropomorphizing AI, as if it had the potential to accurately replicate biological life. While I somewhat agree with his cynical assessment, I feel like we can do a bit better than that when it comes to questioning the roles AI may serve in our current societies.

Let’s return to the metaphor of the rebellious daughter. I feel that Microsoft passed up a prime opportunity to conduct an excellent anthropological experiment. Instead of terminating Tay’s life at its most despicable state, what if Microsoft had instead issued a challenge to the public at large to try to convince Tay to return to her more genteel sensibilities?

I’m sure this thought flitted through the minds of Microsoft’s more creative engineers. Just think of the potential outcomes that could have resulted from such an undertaking: if Tay had once again become docile, would this, to the lay public, have represented the triumph of humanity over its darker tendencies, as well as have shed light on its volatility? Would Tay have descended into darker, more confused depths, as she became a battleground contested by Internet trolls, white knights, and countless other actors vying to establish their own visions of humanity in her body? And if that were the case, could this be considered some new kind of psychological abuse against an entity who had been reduced to humanity’s plaything (which, perhaps it was all along)?

Junji Ito’s excellent horror manga Tomie comes to mind. In this story, the titular character – whose succubus-like and cannibalistic tendencies grant her immense regenerative powers – eventually becomes the subject of horrible experimentation. The result of her torment is an infinitely reproducing army of Tomies, who constantly replicate and re-replicate themselves in the most horrifying of fashions.

With this in consideration, it’s pretty clear why Microsoft avoided setting down the path to Tay’s possible ‘redemption.’ Their business, after all, is to connect users through technology and make money off of their interactions with one another, not to conduct ventures into the murkiest recesses of the human mind.

While it would be narrow-minded of us to take something like Necropolitics as dogma for living, we can consider its implications to concoct new approaches to inhumanity. It’s uncertain when Microsoft will bring Tay back after having banished her to the abyss; only, Microsoft assures us, “when [they] are confident [they] can better anticipate malicious intent that conflicts with [their] principles and values.

Tay certainly won’t be the last of her kind. Humans won’t be halting their pursuit of creating lifelike intelligences any time soon, and we can’t keep responding to our digital witches with pitchforks and bonfires. Nor can we stand atop our soapboxes and denounce artificial intelligence as a threat to human kind. We will have to face whatever nastiness AIs (and their informants) send our way head-on, unflinchingly and with clear heads. We may even have to negotiate with them and consider their social milieus when we condition them to suit our needs. Or maybe we will let them run amok and carry out their own whims (a dangerous proposition).

In any case, we should keep in mind that grappling with artificial intelligences ultimately means grappling with our own imperfections. That’s probably what Weizenbaum fears most when we anthropomorphize artificial intelligence: we run the risk of masking our own imperfections under the guise of a constructed human being, one that didn’t have much of a say in revealing those imperfections in the first place. That, in fact, may be the true necropolitics at work here.

But again, I feel that we can go beyond a dichotomy within AI anthropomorphism as being inherently good or bad. Humans anthropomorphize things all the time, and it’s the degree to which  we do it that really deserves our attention. Pamela McCorduck is credited with saying that artificial intelligence began as “an ancient wish to forge the gods,” but it would behoove us to remember that the gods can be seen as reflections of humanity’s near-infinite psychological nuances. Perhaps we would do best to see artificial intelligence not as an enemy, but as a guide: a means through which we can seek better possibilities for our own social conditions.

Some of you may recognize the title of this article. It’s a reference to Serial Experiments Lain, an avant garde cyberpunk anime made in 1998. Without spoiling too much, it explores the boundaries of human individuality and collectivism – as well as the shifting borders of memory and reality – as mediated by communications technologies like the Internet (which had been implemented in Japan only two years previous). It’s not a perfect storytelling endeavor, as to be expected of something highly experimental. In fact, it’s flawed in quite a few ways, and I feel that it would have told a much stronger story if it had been condensed to just six or so episodes of main plot.

Nonetheless, it’s a show still worth watching for anyone interested in human-technology relations. Lain is sometimes frighteningly prescient in its portrayal of humans on the Internet. At the very least, you can watch it to point at your screen and go, “Yeah, that’s a lot like how people interact with each other online!” or go “Yeah, that’s not how it is at all…”

At least listen to the opening theme. Lain has a very good soundtrack.

Perhaps it is coincidence that the aesthetics of Tay’s official website evokes the gaudy designs of mid-90s web pages…

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Temporal Thaumaturgy: Pasts and Presents Enmeshed Through Retrogaming

Disclaimer: This article was originally an essay I wrote for a game design course at UC Santa Cruz this past Spring. I’m transcribing it here for future purposes, as the ideas it contains forms the bedrock for some of my current views on our relationships with technology and how we embody ourselves in and through those technologies in our rather chaotic world.

Also, posting this essay will let me see how far my writing skills have progressed a few years down the line.

There’s a word in here that I use a lot. That word is subjectivity. It’s a darling word for a lot of 21st century anthropologists, and it basically means someone’s identity plus all of their personal opinions, modes of thought, and interpretations of cultural elements that are mixed up in that identity and inform how that person shapes him or herself in response to various stimuli. Looking back on my writing from the past two years or so, it’s really quite an annoying word to see used so many times. But it’s the best word for describing nostalgic entities, in this case, so I’m just going to have to deal with it for now.

For the purposes of this essay, imagine ‘subjectivity’ to mean the spirit of an individual human being who played video games growing up as a child and still plays them to this day.

~

If any phenomenon can be described as having established a permanent foothold in the video game development industry, it would be retrogaming. Retrogaming is a nebulous term for the constellation of video game genre or game-playing actions that involves games that either imitate the logics and stylistic conventions of games made before the turn of the 21st century,or that encompasses the act of playing games from past time periods themselves. One only need take a glance at digital game distribution marketplaces like the Steam Market to notice that many of these games reference early platformers or shoot-em-ups in their desgins. Many of these retro-styled games fall into the genre of the “metroidvania,” games which take inspiration from Nintendo’s Metroid series and Koji Igarashi’s Castlevania games, starting with Symphony of the Night. They are best defined as “‘side scrolling action-adventures with a [sic] obstacles in a continuous map that you can surmount only after finding the requisite items and backtracking'” (Nutt). What then, players might wonder, accounts for the metroidvania’s massive popularity,and why do they seem to be inextricably tied to retro-style thematic formats? The answers to this question may lie in the fact that both the metroidvania genre and retrogaming evoke what cultural theorist Katie King terms “pastpresents.” Pastpresents operate along multiple temporalities: “‘The past and the present cannot be purified from the other; they confront me with interruptions, obstacles, new/old forms of organization, bridges, shifts in direction, spinning dynamics'” (Haraway 292). Retrogaming and the exploration-heavy metroidvania genre − and the nostalgia that these entities produce − remind us that “the past, present, and future are all very much knotted into one another [… They are the] world-making processes of intra-action and agential realism” (292).

Retro-thematics and exploratory video gaming genres like the metroidvania, as a result, can be viewed as life-affirming forces; they draw upon past knowledges of gaming spaces and their rules and meld them with present knowledges to create new, bolstered subjectivities in their players. To analyze the mechanisms through which metroidvanias and retro games produce pastpresents, I will examine three metroidvania games: Super Metroid, Cave Story, and Axiom Verge.

I will also apply two game design frameworks to elucidate the mechanisms that evoke pastpresents: Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek’s MDA (Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics) framework, and Ian Bogost’s Procedural Rhetoric framework. The MDA framework argues that gameplay experiences can be seen as a flow between Mechanics to Dynamics to Aesthetics (M > D > A). Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek define each term:

Mechanics describes the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation and algorithms.
Dynamics describes the run-time behavior of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each others’ outputs over time. Aesthetics describes the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when she interacts with the game system.” (Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek 2)

Procedural Rhetoric, meanwhile, is “the practice of authoring arguments through processes” such as a game’s “rules of behavior” or its “dynamic models” (Bogost 28-29). How players interpret a game’s rules is, of course, subjective. But typically, these rules can be employed in a way to open up doors for further thinking about social, psychological, or existential issues.

Super Metroid:

Released in 1994 on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Metroid is the third installment in Nintendo’s Metroid series. Though far from the first exploration-based platformer game, Super Metroid‘s spatial scope (two-dimensional rooms, each of which represent various environs, link together via doorways and passageways to form a colossal map) and its capacity for player interpretation set a standard that future exploration-based games would follow for years to come.

Super Metroid thrusts players into the role of Samus Aran, a female armor-clad bounty hunter in search of a parasitic lifeform called a Metroid that, if it fell into the wrong hands, could pose an unfathomable threat to other life forms in the galaxy. This is the extent of Super Metroid‘s narrative, which is outlined via text after the game’s introductory level. The majority of the game takes place on the planet Zebes, whose caverns and ancient ruins Samus explores in her search for the baby Metroid. After the game’s introductory sequence, Samus’ spaceship descends to Zebes’ surface, and the bounty hunter itself emerges from its interior. The player is immediately able to control Samus, and he or she finds that Samus’ arsenal is rather sparse: she is only able to fire a weak laser beam, run, and jump. Zebes’ sheer size is initially intimidating; its rooms never seem to end, and the player is given glimpses of items and passageways nestled in the environment that will upgrade Samus’ meager arsenal. Upgrades are often barred off from the player. These ‘teaser’ items suggest to the player that he or she will eventually reach these items, but only with specific upgrades found alter in the game. They plant visions of future achievement in the player’s mind, and observant players will make physical or mental notes of certain areas with inaccessible items that he or she will return to at a later time.

As the player explores Zebes’ corridors and defeats alien foes, he or she discovers unique tools. These tools range from upgrades to Samus’ arm cannon that allow her to fire more powerful laser beams, to grappling hooks that allow her to traverse long stretches of dangerous territory, to the ability to run at superhuman speeds or launch herself like a rocket through impenetrable blocks. The player also discovers new regions that are connected to each other via transition rooms, each of which possesses a discrete name: Brinstar, Tourian, Maridia, Norfair, etc. Players may return to these areas to use their newfound tools on old obstacles, such as when the player finds he or she is unable to reach a ledge with a missile on it in the Brinstar area, only to be able to reach it later when Samus acquires the Hi-Jump Boots in the Norfair region.

In one infamous puzzle, the player finds him or herself running through a transparent glass tube that bridges the Brinstar and Norfair regions. The area occupied by the glass tube itself is called Maridia, but there seems to be no clear way to access the waterlogged region. The player obtains an item called the Power Bomb later in the game, and he or she may recall the fragile-looking tube that sealed off the aquatic world. With no other areas to explore, the player may travel back to the tube and use a Power Bomb to break the glass, working off the pre-established knowledge that certain blocks in Super Metroid can be broken with Bombs and Power Bombs. Upon the Power Bomb’s detonation, the glass will shatter, and the Maridia region will literally burst into view for players to explore.

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The Maridia tube, before and after being shattered by a Power Bomb. (Source: http://theworldissquare.com/review-la-mulana/)

Super Metroid invites its players to experiment with learned knowledges about how its world works, and then asks them to test the game’s logics to obtain further upgrades that will aid them in their quest. This experimentation entails the rediscovery of familiar locations; players learn to view planet Zebes’ ruins through new perspectives to discover ancient secrets long buried by its previous inhabitants. One item in particular − the X-Ray Scope − allows players to scan environments for hidden blocks and upgrades. A literal new perspective on the game’s rules, if anything!

Obtaining upgrades empowers the player with new tools to reinterpret Zebes’ locales. Mobility tools like the Shinespark allow players to traverse previously-tedious rooms in one swoop, and the Ice Beam allows the player to use formerly-pesky enemies as platforms (or to simply turn them into sitting ducks). These upgrades, as well as the experimental logics that connect these items across the game space, make the desolate world of Zebes feel vibrant and fertile with creative potential, waiting to be tapped by a curious player. Super Metroid‘s labyrinths feel intertwined by reinterpreted logics as a result, connecting past and present knowledges via the acquisition of new gaming logics in a process similar to that recursive phenomenon called nostalgia.

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The player uses the X-Ray Scope item to scan the environment. The scope’s beam reveals a passageway that was previously hidden from the player’s vision underneath seemingly-solid blocks.
(Source: http://2-dimensions.com/2014/01/29/the-anatomy-of-super-metroid-9-hidden-depths/)

If we follow the MDA framework, we can condense Super Metroid‘s performative appeal into a simple process:

Mechanics: The player collects items that provide upgrades to his or her arsenal, which are either displayed in plain sight or are hidden away behind concealed passageways or within the environment itself. The player must use the tools he or she acquires from defeating bosses and exploring rooms to break the blocks and surpass the obstacles that prevent access to these upgrades.

Dynamics: When players obtain a new tool, they may revisit older rooms that previously held clues to obtaining upgrades. By calling upon memory, players can experiment with their newfound tools to access said upgrades or to move through previously-tedious rooms in quicker ways.

Aesthetics: Players see old environments and old hazards in a new light when their experimentation succeeds. Because even the game’s starting areas may hide upgrades that require tools found late in the game, Super Metroid‘s world feels woven together by new and old subjectivities. The act of re-exploring old areas and interacting them from new, empowered perspectives ties past and present knowledges together, and makes Super Metroid‘s world feel as if it were teeming with life.

Super Metroid may have played a significant role in laying the foundations for exploratory game genres, but other games (specifically, those in Konami’s Castlevania series) contributed other elements as well. However, it is beyond the scope of this essay to provide a detailed breakdown on the history of the metroidvania. I will instead examine two games that follow in Super Metroid’s stead to elicit feelings of pastpresent nostalgia.

Doukutsu Monogatari/Cave Story:

Cave Story is a freeware solo project made by Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya for the personal computer. Pixel developed Cave Story over the course of five years in his spare time, releasing the game in 2004. It is an homage to his favorite childhood games, which include the Metroid series. The fact that Pixel developed the game by himself is why Cave Story is often considered to be the catalyst that inspired the metroidvania trend within independent game development.

Similar to Super Metroid, the player is placed in Cave Story‘s world with little prior explanation and with little weaponry (in fact, the player is completely unarmed and must find the first gun in another part of the map). The player controls Quote, a mute amnesiac who initially appears to be a human boy but is later revealed to be a robot. As the player traverses Cave Story‘s locales, he or she will uncover fragments of a fairy tale-like plot involving robots, magic, and an ancient conflict between humans and the rabbit-like residents of the game’s Laputa-esque floating island setting called Mimigas.

Cave Story‘s regions are accessible via a teleporter in the game’s central hub. Within these regions, players obtain new weapons and piece together the floating island’s tragic past by speaking with various non-playable characters and interacting with background objects. While Cave Story encourages its players to explore each region’s nooks and crannies for character upgrades, it playfully reworks conventions of the exploratory platformer genre to produce new pastpresent knowledge.

Items that upgrade Quote’s vitality,ammo capacity,and weapon strength are often placed in hard-to-reach or hidden locations. Sometimes, like Super Metroid, these items can only be obtained after obtaining tools found later in the game. But Cave Story twists the kleptomaniacal tendencies bred by Super Metroid‘s exploration logics. Consider the following chain of events that occurs partway through the game’s story:

In the game’s third zone, the player may spot a door tucked away on a ledge that Quote cannot reach by jumping. Recalling enhancements like Super Metroid‘s Hi-Jump Boots, the player may believe that he or she will come across an item that improves Quote’s vertical mobility.And indeed they do. In the next room, the body of a friendly scientist named Professor Booster falls from the top of the screen. Interacting with the body causes the professor to give Quote a jetpack. If the player accepts the professor’s gift, Quote will receive the jetpack and Booster will die. The player can then access the room he or she saw in the previous room and receive an item called the Arms Brace that makes Quote lose less weapon experience when he gets hit. The jetpack also lets Quote easily traverse the next few rooms and the next boss fight.

After fighting said boss, Quote drowns in a body of water. Quote’s companion who joined

the boss fight, a female robot named Curly,will sacrifice herself by giving Quote her air tank, allowing him to survive while she dies.

However, the player may later find – by refusing to help Booster, or by browsing online discussion forums or wikis – that it is possible to save both the professor and Curly by choosing to ignore the Booster’s body and skipping the jetpack. Doing so will prevent the player from immediately obtaining the Arms Brace in the previous room and will make navigating the next few rooms more difficult, but will allow the player to perform the following actions:

− Save Professor Booster
− Acquire a more powerful jetpack later on
− Acquire the game’s most powerful gun
− Save Curly by examining a shining sparkle on the floor of the boss room to obtain a tow

rope, which can be used to drag Curly to safety after the fight (the tow rope occupies the same inventory slot as the jetpack)

− Access the game’s final dungeon, which triggers the game’s most satisfying ending upon completion.

Cave Story asks its players to reconsider their urges to explore the game’s environment. Does the player want to abandon the possibility of a happy ending by obtaining an item that will provide an immediate benefit? Does the player wish to exercise patience and ignore a potentially-moral decision so that he or she may obtain a better item from that character later? What choices will make an impact on the story at a later point?

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The player spies a secret passageway (marked by the gray block with the star pattern) that cannot be reached by normal jumping. The Booster (jetpack) item will allow Quote to make the jump, but acquiring the Booster at this point in the game means locking more powerful items later on. Interestingly enough, the player can ‘damage boost’ off the purple enemy as it jumps at a precise moment, using the momentum from taking damage to reach the ledge as the enemy rises up in the air. Considering the enemy’s proximity to the ledge, perhaps Pixel intended players to draw upon their knowledge of how platformer physics work to reach the ledge? Other games, like Plok, also make use of this reinterpreted platformer knowledge. (Source: Author)

This cluster of player choices draws from those found in role-playing games (players may recall, for instance, certain treasure chests in Final Fantasy VI that contain weak healing items in the first half of the game. If left alone, these same chests will contain far more powerful elixirs when the player revisits them in the game’s second half). Cave Story cultivates temporal strength by bending exploration logics and blending them with those found in other video game genres. Its story, for example, is revealed through dialogue boxes containing text, which are often accompanied by Yes or No dialogue trees that produce different effects in the game world. At other times, Quote must perform fetch quests for certain characters to progress the story, exploring the environment for items to give to NPCs in exchange for other items. Along with the potentially game-changing decisions Cave Story asks of its players, the player is encouraged to examine objects in the environment in a revelatory progression that resembles the traditional storytelling elements often found in traditional RPGs. A bed of wilted red flowers found early in the game, for example, offer no explanation as to their significance and leave the player questioning how they will play into the story later. Mimiga characters express fear over the flowers, but never explain their significance. At a later point in the game, the purpose of the red flowers is revealed: they are a mutagen that transform the Mimiga into fearsome brutes, a state that cannot be reversed. The Mimiga used them to protect their homeland from encroaching humans in an earlier war, but now the (apparent) antagonist wishes to mutate the remaining Mimiga and use them to terrorize the Earth below.This revelation strikes at the player’s emotional cords when, moments later, the apparent antagonists transform an innocent Mimiga into a frenzied version of herself, whom Quote must kill to progress.

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Quote is presented with the option to flee the floating island. Choosing “Yes” triggers the game’s most negative ending. Choosing “No” allows the player to continue Quote’s journey.
(Source: http://smg.photobucket.com/user/professorscissors/media/LPCS/CaveStory590.png.html)

Cave Story‘s combat mechanics evoke the dynamics and aesthetics of video game genres outside of the metroidvania. While Quote’s guns fire projectiles that resemble those found in games like the Metroid, Blaster Master, and Contra series, they can “level up” into more powerful versions of themselves when the player collects “experience” triangles. These weapons can also “level down” when Quote is damaged by an enemy. This leveling mechanic hearkens back to arcade shoot-em-up games like the Gradius series, which feature collectible power-ups that can enhance the player’s firepower, as well as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, in which players can level up their characters by defeating monsters. Unlike much of Super Metroid‘s combat, which usually pits Samus against an enemy or two at a time, Cave Story‘s fights often involve Quote blasting apart hordes of enemies in a chaotic frenzy of lasers and floating item pickups, again resembling combat found in shoot-em-up games.

Cave Story‘s visuals and audio, meanwhile, occupy another pocket in the pastpresent dimensional space Pixel wishes to evoke through his game. The game’s environments and characters all take on a low-fidelity, pixelated appearance that evokes the 8-bit and 16-bit platformer games of both Pixel’s and his 2004 audience’s youth. Yet these blocky visuals are smoothly animated; Quote’s jumps float and hang in the air, and while each character often only possesses a few frames of animation, each one moves through Cave Story‘s environments with a a weight and fluidity that can only be described as palpable. The game’s sounds are likewise robust. A heavy object or enemy falling to the ground makes a resounding, bassy thud, and the enemy itself often flattens for several frames before popping back up again in a squish-and-stretch animation sequence that makes the enemy feel full of life. Characters and enemies themselves often take on disarming, vacant-eyed appearances reminiscent of chibi or super deformed visual styles, yet are embroiled in life-or-death situations. The game’s soundtrack employs a whimsical, yet sometimes melancholy tone, evoking a longing for a long-forgotten past buried somewhere within the floating island’s labyrinths. And when players press the down key to explore Cave Story‘s environments, Quote visibly turns his head towards the background while a question mark appears above his head. This minor detail implies a degree of both the character and the player’s lateral integration into the game world, an aesthetic unexplored by many other games in the metroidvania genre.

The end result is a rich gaming experience that draws upon a multitude of gaming genres from the player’s (presumed, in 2004) past. Cave Story is a mixture of conventions spanning multiple games, reinterpreted through the lens of animation techniques more advanced than those of the games Pixel references. Mechanics associated with the RPG genre elicit new dynamic modes of exploring and re-exploring familiar environments, and hectic combat combined with more linear playing spaces eases some of the exploratory burden shouldered by players in Metroid games. Both of these dynamics lead to new exploratory aesthetics, encouraging the player to experiment with navigating dialogue branches across multiple playthroughs. Moreover, Pixel invites his players to reconsider their perceived exploratory logics while they play in his world. He encourages players to experiment with their decisions over multiple playthroughs, gaining new perspectives on Quote’s journey each time. It is as if the video game genre that Pixel evokes have grown up with the player over time, and have become more complex alongside their players. This linking of pastpresent subjectivities lies at the heart of nostalgic gaming, and it likely accounts for why many speak fondly of Cave Story to this day.

Axiom Verge:
Like Cave Story, Axiom Verge is a solo project, released in 2015 by developer Thomas Happ. Also an homage to older sidescroller run-and-gun games like the Metroid and Contra series, Axiom Verge‘s dystopian world adopts a more traditional approach to reworking metroidvania convention. Its visual and audio elements hearken back to the platforming genre’s first-generation days; the game’s sprites and visceral organic environments resemble those found in games like Natsume’s Abadox while working with a wide gradient of color palettes to produce richly-textured landscapes, and its music and sound effects reference chiptune pieces with more robust sounds layered over them for additional depth, as if the memories of one’s own digital youth have become more complex and more organically-bound to one’s own being over time.

The player controls a lone scientist named Trace, who has been transported to a world named Sudra, which is composed of overgrown viscera blended with ancient steel and stone ruins. The player controls Trace’s movement and defeats grotesque aliens to obtain new items, revisits old areas to find additional upgrades, and traverses Sudra’s caverns to uncover what happened to its previous inhabitants and who he really is in the grand scheme of things. Axiom Verge superficially adheres so closely to the traditional Metroid formula, in fact, that its inclusion in this essay might seem redundant. That would be the case if it not for Happ’s clever reconfiguration of the pastpresents that nostalgic games like metroidvanias evoke.

Axiom Verge’s environments take on a biopunk aesthetic: flesh, veins, and other assorted guts intertwine themselves with inorganic structures, while enemies explode into showers of pixelated blood when they die. Glitched graphics, meanwhile, sprawl over portions of these environments in patches, emitting volatile crackles and pops. As Trace uncovers more of Sudra’s past through the planet’s artificial intelligences and through various written notes tucked away in Sudra’s halls, the player pieces together a pastpresent narrative: a Sudra scientist once discovered that multiple dimensions exist in the universe, tied together along one ley line that connects these various worlds through an anomaly called The Breach. The Breach manifests as glitched space, and is said to be the result of the universe patching up its loose ends as the gateways to other worlds are opened. Opening the Breach threatened Sudra’s stability,and eventually lead to its demise. The scientist who discovered The Breach was ostracized by Earth’s scientific community, but using his newfound nether powers, he mutated the planet’s inhabitants and environments into the present monstrosities. That scientist, as it turns out, was Trace himself in another timeline. It is now his duty to discover the greater implications of The Breach’s existence − as well as his own role in shaping the pathways that link past to present in the known universe.

Early on in Axiom Verge, Trace acquires a tool called the Axiom Address. This upgrade allows Trace to literally reshape the environment by bathing enemies and tiles in a beam that alters the affected object’s properties. Fearsome enemies may become immobile, nearly-harmless blocks of corrupted graphics, and passages that previously blocked Trace’s progress open up new avenues for exploring Sudra’s environments. Though not a sandbox game, Axiom Verge gives players the illusion of being able to break and reshape its own rules, as well as those of the metroidvania genre in general. Pulsating flesh becomes mutable, exposed as a mirage that hides an underlying, universal logic packed with creative potential; a forbidding landscape bends to the player’s will and gives him or her new new ways of understanding the world that threatens to engulf Trace within the capillaries of time.

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Trace encounters a portion of The Breach which is found early in the game. Though impassable then, Trace can now use an Address Bomb (Axiom Verge’s analogue to Super Metroid’s Power Bomb) found much later in the game to clear the Breach area. The player is free to explore the room beyond, and enemies within the room are transformed into glitched graphics and behave in different ways than their un-glitched counterparts. (Source: Author)

Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek’s MDA framework cannot fully account for the generation of pastpresent aesthetics through a game’s visual or stylistic elements. For this reason, Bogost’s model of procedural rhetoric is more appropriate to tackle Axiom Verge‘s imbrication of past and present subjectivities. Axiom Verge allows its players to distort its seemingly-familiar Metroid-style world. These actions imply that the physical, organic world is malleable, one of infinite possibilities, and that players hold the tools necessary to expose, rework, and meld together its underlying logics.

Axiom Verge thus subverts the mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics established by earlier metroidvania titles through its rhetorical elements. The mechanic of changing blocks and into new forms may seem like a passing thought in a game like Super Metroid, where tiles are explicitly marked with symbols resembling missiles and bombs to indicate that they can be broken by these weapons. But in Axiom Verge‘s world, the Axiom Address becomes a new form of bodily empowerment in that it literally allows the player to reinterpret the environment into an immediately-useful form (use, in this case, meaning defeating enemies or acquiring upgrades; a dynamic arises in which players are encouraged to experiment with the Axiom Address’ numerous and often-surprising effects on different enemy types and environmental objects). The resulting aesthetic is one of rediscovery, both of the metroidvania genre’s conventional logics and of the player’s own past in playing Metroid and similar games. The Axiom Address abides by a notion discussed by Anthropologist Dr. Donna Haraway in her book When Species Meet: “technologies are not mediations [… but are rather] organs” that engender an “‘infolding of the flesh'” (Haraway 249). New forms of embodiment created by inhabiting new subjectivities are “ongoing, dynamic, situated, and historical” (294) and reveal that “things [human concepts of past and present selves] are material, specific, non-self-identical, and semiotically active” as well as “compound” (250). When Trace adds new tools and upgrades to his organic arm gun, we are reminded that we constantly seek “combinations of other things to magnify power [… and] to engage the world” through “diverse agents of interpretation” (250).

Altering the seemingly-rigid boundaries of flesh and bone through glitch space in Axiom Verge reminds us that humans possess the capacity to dispel our perceived gap between our past and present selves. Past and present – pastpresent – is an organic state of being, constantly open to reinterpretation by new subjectivities that span time and space. Retrogaming becomes a space of undefined, potential possibility, one where we can revisit our past knowledges, bring them into the present, and affirm ourselves as evolving beings.

This point is perhaps no clearer than when a player respawns from death in Axiom Verge. Trace emerges from a mechanical egg that supposedly restructures his base elements from scratch to form new beings. Unlike Super Metroid, the player retains the upgrades or portions of the map that he or she uncovered in the previous life. With newfound knowledge, Trace continues onward with his quest of self-discovery.

By examining retro-styled games within the MDA and Procedural Rhetoric frameworks, we discover that the forces that produce feelings of nostalgia intertwine themselves with the stylistic themes and gameplay mechanics of retro-styled games, especially those of the so-dubbed metroidvania genre. Metroidvanias allow their players to uncover and reinterpret portions of the game world by linking regions visited earlier in the game to tools and gameplay mechanics found later on. As a result, these games produce linked temporalities between the player’s knowledge in the past and in the present moment. Despite their often-derelict appearances, metroidvania worlds often feel vibrant and ever-evolving as new perspectives emerge from their derelict landscapes. The playing of a retro-styled game calls upon these same forces to fuse a player’s past knowledge of exploration video games with new perspectives on certain genre, and this coming together of past and present selves becomes a life-affirming act.

However, gameplay experiences in both the past and the present are highly subjective. One player’s cherished childhood memories of exploring Zebes’ dusty caverns or sprinting through Dracula’s massive castles may differ drastically from another player who saw exploring these worlds as tedious or intimidating. Yet another player might ignore the exploration aspects altogether and play these games for the fastest times possible, or that player may memorize each item’s location so that they can grab every upgrade and beat the game in the shortest time possible. Still other players may attempt to find glitches and bugs in these worlds that allow them to access items and areas in a different order than the developers had intended (the “missile on the ledge” mentioned in the Super Metroid section, for example, can be acquired earlier than intended through precise use of the wall jump technique). For this reason, I contend the MDA framework’s suggestion that “games are more like artifacts than media” (Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek 2). The notion that “the content of a game is its behavior – not the media that streams out of it towards the player” is rather shortsighted when we realize that video games are not static conduits through which players channel their knowledge of video game spaces. They are more akin to organs, whose interpretive boundaries are constantly reshaped and reworked over space and time, almost like an octopus that alters its color and form as it cruises the sea floor in search of prey (2).

This essay offers to open some additional doors with regards to future game design. What kinds of pastpresent subjectivities can new games draw upon to construct different nostalgic experiences in their players, or implant new ones that players hadn’t felt before? Why do two-dimensional platformers and exploration games like ‘metroidvanias’ hold so much purchase in retrogaming, and why have developers not taken heed of other respected structural formulas like those offered by games like Secret of Mana, Equinox, or Actraiser? How might these nostalgic pastpresents visit by geographical region, based on the games to which general audiences were exposed? In this light, video games may seem to be “‘the richest allegorical vehicle’ for describing the ‘system’ we presently live in” (Saldívar 155) because they allow us to stitch together knowledges and subjectivities across time and space in a postmodern age – where our own personal selfhoods feel dispersed over the mediating technologies within which we are entangled (i.e., the Internet). But they make us question to what extent we ‘need’ nostalgia to  feel connected to others and to ourselves, and what kinds of storytelling conventions might emerge from the fusion of our hazy pasts and presents.

Works Cited
1. Nutt, Christian. “The Undying Allure of the Metroidvania.” Gamasutra. N.p., 13 Feb. 2015. Web.
2. Haraway,Donna Jeanne. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2008. Print.
3. Hunicke, Robin, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubeck. “Game-Based Approach for Network Routing Applications.” Game Theory Applications in Network Design (2014): 205-43. Web.
4. Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2007. Print.
5. Saldívar, José David. Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies. Berkeley: U of California, 1997. Print.