I played Akira Ueda’s Contact the same week I read Milan Kundura’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Both were more interesting than enjoyable, so I figured it could be worthwhile examining the two stories in the same post. By analysing a famous work of literature through an obscure Nintendo DS role-playing game, and vice versa, I’m hoping that I’ll come across an original insight. You know, like the proverbial encounter of the sewing-machine and the umbrella…
After his country is invaded by Russians, Czech surgeon Toma’s infidelities threaten his only genuine relationship and sparks a chain of philosophically profound events. Directed by an alien professor, an anonymous gamer coerces an unnamed boy into reassembling the scattered fuel cells of the alien’s ship. These, respectively, are the plots of Unbearable Lightness and Contact.
Unbearable Lightness is a philosophical novel, meaning that it would’ve been better off as a lecture. Kundura dazzles the reader with novel concepts and thought experiments, which while intriguing, detract from the main plot where he tries to make the reader feel sorry for a surgeon with multiple mistresses. Maybe it’s my current life situation speaking, but that’s difficult for me. I feel a hesitant sort of admiration at the improvised logistics you’d need to perform to maintain that lifestyle, alongside a desire not to exaggerate my own moral standing by condemning a stranger’s private life, a suspicion that it’d be imprudent to suggest that monogamy might not be the ideal for everyone everywhere, as well as the inevitable jealousy. But on the other hand, I totally pity the guy for the shit the Soviets put him through.
The problem with Contact is that the battles occur almost entirely without your input. RPG gameplay is defined by violence, whether it’s ritualised menu-based combat or real time sword-slashing. Neither happen in Contact, instead you walk your guy close to the enemy and he attacks automatically! Sure, you can choose whether or not to cast a spell, but it’s just not the same. I frequently found myself checking Twitter or watching television during major boss battles. If this is the only sort of fighting Contact is willing to consider, it should’ve gone down the Lucas Arts adventure game route instead.
But let’s not talk about the flaws. Let’s talk about what made Contact and Unbearable Lightness worth writing.
Literary fiction is always a crapshoot. For every brilliant Pynchon or Rushdie novel, there are at least ten boring stories about tedious people doing dull things that don’t involve science fiction, fantasy or even horror. According to me, a book is literary fiction if it describes a situation so common that all readers can see themselves in it, or a scenario that encapsulates a hot issue, or uses an unusual literary technique. Unbearable Lightness qualifies through its gratuitous authorial interventions.
Many of the short chapters in Unbearable Lightness are philosophical digressions where Kundura lectures the reader about eternal recurrence, kitsch or animal rights. Sometimes he’d even use the ‘I’ word, writing how these characters were born from a certain scenario and don’t exist outside of the novel. I was not impressed. If I wanted to read authors clumsily intrude on their own stories I’d be reading bad fan fiction, at least those writers are self-aware enough to flag their commentary with an A/N.
Contact did a lot of things wrong, but breaking the fourth wall wasn’t one of them. The Professor (who is never named) talks directly to the player, as though they were holding a communication device and not a gaming device. His technology allows the player to take control of an innocent bystander, called by default Terry, and gather the lost fuel. For the rest of the game the professor watches you through the top screen, while the bottom screen plays like a quirky RPG. All this comes to an head at the end, when Terry realises he’s being controlled and tries to kill the player. You defeat him.
The difference between the two works is who is breaking that legendary fourth wall. In Contact the professors and later Terry, both clearly fictional characters, interact with the player. Kundura, on the other hand, goes out of his way to remind the reader that they’re reading a novel, as if the pages and covers weren’t enough of a clue.
Postmodernism is the defining gimmick of Contact. In Unbearable Lightness it is a distraction.
Oedipus and Atrocities
Writing an opinion piece, Tomas compares the atrocities of the early Bolsheviks to Oedipus’ unwitting murder of his father. At the time both thought their violence was aiding the greater good, the price of their actions becoming apparent later. (For those who don’t know, Oedipus’ patricide resulted in a rash of natural disasters and civil unrest in his hometown Thebes.) For Tomas, the major difference was that when Oedipus became aware of the consequences of his actions he gouged out his eyes and exiled himself, while the Soviets pretended to have been mislead by Lenin’s enthusiasm and Stalin’s tyranny. This was easily one of the most interesting metaphors I’ve encountered for a long time.
You can apply the Oedipus metaphor to Terry’s cooperation with the Professor’s scheme. It turns out he stole his fuel cells from Space Pirates, the game’s antagonists, and it’s never made clear which party has the moral high ground. What becomes obvious at the end is that Terry thinks the player is wrong to have controlled him, making the player the Oedipus of the scenario. Now that’s good postmodernism.
The Oedipus metaphor is powerful because it relates to our contemporary politics. I’m sure the people who voted for Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberals must’ve been convinced that he’d be a competent Prime Minister, and now they need to deal with the guilt of electing a government that sends fake debt bills to welfare recipients. File Oedipus in the ‘metaphors to steal’ draw.
Kundura defines kitsch as any form of art that makes you think more than feel. His example is the May Day marches in communist Czechoslovakia, but almost all propaganda, advertising or religious art counts. Bad art also gets the label, though I think that’s under a slightly different definition. For me, cat videos are the ultimate kitsch. Kundura thinks that kitsch is fine if you live in a politically pluralist society, but in a totalitarian one it’s just another form of oppression.
I disagree. Try being a student at a Catholic school filled with Christian art that veers between sickeningly sweet and disturbingly grotesque, or hanging out with a young person who watches the same Wiggles DVD every day. Even though it’s January, you probably still wince at the memory of soulless pop Christmas carols played in shops, and if you’re reading this from Auckland you may still be haunted by the visage of your local giant Santa. More horrifically, American soldiers have tortured their Iraqi prisoners with the Barney song. I’m certain that long-term exposure to kitsch, or at the very least art you despise, is bad for your health.
RPGs can be pretty kitsch. Many have outdated graphics designed to inspire nostalgia in older players, while RPG conventions like random battles and medieval fantasy worlds have become so standardised that experienced veterans can plow through an entire game without developing a strategy more sophisticated than grinding. Some of the recent Pokemon installments are pretty kitschy, with their familiar plots and easy gameplay. Dragon Quest can be similarly unadventurous at times, although by now that’s kind of the point.
But Contact is not kitschy. Yes, the graphics are retro, but they come in two different flavours of retro. On the top screen the Professor lives in an 8-bit world, while on the bottom screen Terry is blessed with 16-bit graphics. It gets really fun in the penultimate segment, where Terry gets sucked into an arcade machine and stomps around an Atari landscape. These varied graphics style, as well as the unconventional gameplay, means that kitschness can’t be counted among Contact’s faults.
Kundura is fascinated by Nietzche’s concept of eternal recurrence, a thought experiment where you ask yourself what would really matter in a universe that endlessly repeated the same history. He thinks that everything that happens in a cyclical universe would be significant, because of all that repetition, while events in a linear universe would be lighter. The title comes from that thought and the arbitrary coincidences that govern the characters’ lives.
Any story is going to fall under a version of eternal recurrence, because the closest fictional events can get to occurring is to have an audience thinking about them. How many times do you think people have read about Harry Potter shouting at people, steered Mario through the Mushroom kingdom or cheered Jon McLane as he yippee-ki-yay’d his way up Nakatomi Plaza. Stories reliant on radical plot-twists are practically designed to be experienced twice. Games are probably the best medium to revisit stories, seeing how sometimes your choices affects the plot’s outcome.
Contact didn’t do anything remarkably special in terms of replayability. There are side quests and you can choose which stat to specialise in, but that’s not enough to get me playing again.
From Unbearable Lightness I’d steal the Oedipus metaphor to describe people who vote for things I dislike, Kundura’s thoughts on kitsch for when I need to denigrate some art, and his eternal recurrence thing for when I need to impress bored people at parties. He can keep the authorial intrusions and his attempt to make a lothario pitiable. Similarly, if I ever found myself making a video game I’d steal Contact’s approach to postmodernism and aesthetics, leaving the underwhelming combat system.
As I said at the start, Contact and Lightness were more interesting than enjoyable. I’d only recommend either to someone looking for ideas worth stealing, and that they don’t pay the full price. Stealing ideas from fiction I don’t enjoy, I guess that’s the original insight I got from writing this post.