So there I was the other night, sitting on my couch, having fired up the old PlayStation Three, all ready, like the video game writing dude that I am, to play the new game Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, when, to my surprise, a flash of light filled my living room, and when I regained my sight, before me stood a genuine outer space alien, who introduced himself as Zizmor, and sat down.
After making repeated assurances that he was not going to hunt me for sport, Zizmor explained his presence. He came from another dimension ("or very far in the past, but never-mind"), and his mission, if one could call it a mission, as Zizmor's people believed in taking action for the acquisition of pure knowledge and not for anything so crass as box-checking and goal-reaching, was to catalogue the lower-upper-middle-class experience in the human year 2013. He had read about us but he had not lived among us, and while he knew solipsism to be a logical fallacy (having been disproved by his people during their Great Neural Revolution), he still believed that there was insight to be gained by watching another being in its natural state and asking it questions.
His people, he said, call this ritual a 'walkthrough'.
Unsure of where to begin the walkthrough, I started with the system in front of us . "So, we've got these things called video games."
Zizmor waved his hand impatiently.
"Right, so the companies that make video games think that it is funny—"
"Funny?" Zizmor asked.
"So, humor is—
"I'm joking." Zizmor looked pleased.
I began again. "So video game companies do these jokes on April first, and 'announce' games that will never actually come out. And Ubisoft, a really big company that made a very popular game called Far Cry 3, 'announced' a sort of sequel to that game that looked like it was made by the nerds of the 1980s. You know, with lasers and guys with cool names and stuff."
"Why is this joke humorous?" Now Zizmor looked genuinely puzzled.
"Well, humans, or at least Americans, find the 1980s to be very funny. You see, thirty years ago people had much different ideas about technology, fashion, and the relative roles of the sexes. In the discrepancies between their attitudes and ours, much humor can be derived. A whole series of movies, television shows and popular music is beloved precisely because it seems so dated and culturally specific. Some of us call this 'irony', even though the use of that word is—"
Zizmor cleared his throat.
"Ok. So, the idea that a technology company, in the year 2013, would make a game that assumes all the cultural mores of 1985 is absurd. Hence, a humorous joke. But the thing is, it wasn't a joke. Ubisoft really made this game, and I'm about to play it."
Zizmor screamed. Seeing the look of concern on my face, he explained that the laughter of his people sounded like a human scream, and that he was very amused by the actions of this Ubisoft, which seemed to go against everything he had read about the conservative and tyrannical corporations of the humans.
"Well, Zizmor, that is certainly one way of looking at Ubisoft's actions. Another way of looking at it is that in adopting an ironic posture and clever viral [and here came a lengthy discussion of the etymology of that word that I will not recount] marketing strategy, Ubisoft has made a clever, if pandering, business move. It really depends on how you look at it."
"Our brains can accomodate more than one possibility, human. It need not be one or the other."
This seemed true. Blood Dragon began.
"So, is this game what you humans call satire?" Zizmor asked.
"No, Zizmor. Satire uses humor as a device to suggest social change. The classic example is A Modest Proposal, in which Jonathan Sw—"
"Yes, yes, the baby eating!" Zizmor screamed long and loud. "So this is parody, then?"
I thought for a moment. "Well, not in the classic sense. See, parody usually involves a degree of mockery. In humorously imitating a genre, you sort of by definition call attention to its shortcomings. I don't think this game has any interest in mocking the fantasies of the 1980s. That's a pretty easy target. Also I think the people who made this game genuinely adore the fantasies of the 1980s."
By this point I had started to do things in the game. Zizmor sat in appreciative silence as he watched me move around a neon landscape, fire lasers at cyborgs, and repair damage to my metal left arm with a pair of pliers. At some point he quietly screamed and muttered something about our primitive understanding of the behavior of lasers in humidity, but I thought it best not to ask.
"I am confused," Zizmor said, after a time. "These beings appear to discharge nothing more than omnicolored goo! I thought your first-person shooting games were full of blood plasma and entrails and the white hydroxyapatite that forms your endoskeleton!"
"I thought so too, Zizmor," I said, and then we sat in another silence, which this time felt profound.
More cyborgs, a few punchlines, the introduction of neon space dragons.
"Who is this man speaking throughout the game? And why has he not cleared his throat?"
"Well, Zizmor," I said, "The game's producers hired an actor named Michael Biehn to do the voice of the main character. He is known for his gruff voice and he is also closely associated with science fiction films from the 1980s. It's another joke."
"Fascinating. But if the inclusion of this Biehn is meant to be humorous, then why are you not laughing at his dialog?" Zizmor asked.
"Because it's not very funny."
"I know!" Zizmor said finally. "This is a homage." I decided not to discuss the influence of the French language on English pronounciation. "Like the films of your Quentin Tarantino. It appears to revel in its influences, to at the same time celebrate and gently harpoon them."
Zizmor seemed excited when I did not immediately disagree with this interpretation. I had to admit, it made a lot of sense. The game certainly did seem to access the same pleasure centers as The Terminator and Metal Gear and their ilk, what with all the cyborgs and warbling synthesizers and crude animated cutscenes and the deft inclusion of Michael Biehn. But still, this didn't seem quite right. I tried to talk through it.
"Well, Zizmor, the thing is, Tarantino generally uses the form of the genre to which he's paying homage. So, like, Kill Bill is a kung fu movie. And Django Unchained is a western. And they work as really good genre movies, and also as homage. But Blood Dragon isn't a movie, or a cartoon, or an 8-bit videogame. Actually, it is an extremely modern first person shooter and it uses most of the conventions of that genre. So no, Zizmor, I don't think you can call it an homage in the sense that you can call Django Unchained an homage."
Zizmor laughed, and immediately apologized, adding that he should not have used profanity in the house of a stranger.
"But then what is it?" Zizmor asked. "What is this Blood Dragon? What is its raisin deter? Why does it exist? Tell me. Tell me!"
Well, it wasn't a satire. And it wasn't a parody. And it wasn't a direct homage to any one kind of form. What it appeared to be was a fifteen-dollar celebration of some things that the people who made it find to be awesome, that all happened to occur within the same ten-year span that we Americans have basically agreed is hilarious. But I was not sure that I could detect any further logic. And I wasn't sure whether or not there should be any further logic. What a world.
I wished to make an appeal to that last refuge of the writerly scoundrel, the postmodern. I wished to tell Zizmor that our culture is now creating artifacts that we no longer can, or even desire to, explain to ourselves, but I wasn't sure that would make sense to a hyper-rational super intellect like him.
I have to admit, sitting there across from Zizmor, trying to figure out a way to explain Blood Dragon to an alien, I was pretty fucking stumped.
Zizmor must have sensed my distress, for he reached across to my couch with his ten-foot purple left arm, and patted my knee reassuringly.
"You humans," he said, and screamed.
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
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