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The Metaphysics of Retro/Grade

Posted: Tue Oct 22, 2013 11:27 am
by macaca
Hi Infinitap folks, it is interesting to note that while Matt provided Retro/Grade's storyline descriptions (and the main protagonist himself) with a whimsical, tongue-in-cheek air, he also injected an undercurrent of darkness and depth within the music, plot, and visual aesthetics of the game that is far more sophisticated than any of the trite "You-can-be-a-rock-star!" themes that pervade most other music rhythm games. I think it would be interesting to have a discussion regarding how the unusual plot and reversal mechanics in Retro/Grade reflects upon the tone of the game and its overall philosophical message. Here are my own impressions.

In Rick Rocket, Matt has created a character that is so ridiculously skilled he can defeat an entire armada while head-bobbing to a backwards-playing radio (and never be hit by one bullet!), and yet he is destined to both atone for and perpetually repeat his mindless mistakes in a Sysyphusian cycle of infinite recurrence that might even make Friedrich Nietzsche reconsider his stance on fate as something to be unreservedly loved. Retro/Grade's dark themes are intensified by the way the game channels the spooky feeling from the early 1980's, with it's pervasive moog synthesizers and black-screen neon CGI effects which informed many of my childhood preconceptions of death (some of those animations on Sesame Street were terrifying!). While I find the game to be quite frightening for these reasons, I think there's an important moral lesson embedded within Rick Rocket's Quixotian downfall. From early on in playing Retro/Grade, one notices that the game has been designed by Matt in such a way as to require the player's constant focus on Rick Rocket's ship almost 100% of the time. With perhaps the Octobot being the only exception, there is rarely a reason (in terms of gameplay) for the player to do any more than glimpse at Rick Rocket's distant enemy targets, and never with more than the corner of his/her eye. Nevertheless, Matt took the time to painstakingly craft beautifully detailed movements for each of the enemy ships, some of whom spin gracefully between shots in an almost gleeful manner before being destroyed by Rick in equally glorious exploding animations. This beauty largely escapes the player's own perception much in the way it escapes Rick's. (On another level, I think the game itself may have been overlooked by many would-be players for this same reason: much of the game's meticulous beauty lies underneath the level of conscious perception.) Highlighting this loss, the unique backwards time mechanic in the game works so that the ships perform their tragic dances AFTER they are destroyed by Rick, taking on an almost ghostlike quality, like afterimages in the mind.

There is a fundamental tragedy that underlies our failure to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us, and this is tied to the consequences of our mistakes- none of which is more tragic than how it dooms us to repeat them. In Braid-like fashion, the enemy that appears to be the most aggressive, the Octobot, is actually fleeing for its life when perceived in forward-time, feverishly traveling in and out of abandoned buildings through hastily-opened shutter-doors. When seen in reverse, the closing of the shutter-doors engenders a creepy feeling of claustrophobia in the player, as though the Octobot is trying to trap Rick by shutting corridors behind him- the opposite is in fact the case. While the plot of the game suggests that the Exnorian Armada are "invaders," Matt has left off most the plot details to give an air of mystery as to what is really going on here- we have no idea as to what the Exnorians' motives are. Clearly Rick's society doesn't seem clear of all guilt: why do they have factories producing "Soylent Cuisine" (which may or may not have some sinister ingredients...)? Why does the planet Quoob wants to destroy that hypersphere just because it doesn't have angles? Truly, it is ambiguous at best who the real villain is in this game, highlighted by the fact that Rick's actions ultimately doom the entire universe.

But if Rick is the villain, his crime is not that of malevolence nor apathy, but one far more familiar to those of us who wish to make a positive in the world despite our vices. It is the crime of unawareness, and of thoughtlessness. But those of us who commit such "crimes" (i.e. all of us) are not beyond redemption: with newfound understanding always comes a chance for reform and atonement. Rick Rocket is no exception, and thus Retro/Grade is just as much a game about creation and connection as it is about destruction and dissolution. Rick Rocket's ultimate objective in the game is one of unification- "saving the universe" requires Rick to focus his efforts to restore the lives of his enemies to save the lives of his friends, and he takes on this assignment with as much focused aplomb as he did his initial campaign of annihilation. Actually moreso: each chapter plot humorously reminds us how apathetic and self-centered Rick was throughout his initial campaign, destroying the Exnorians to save his personal property investments or in one case, merely to vent his anger that he was unable to find a cup of his favorite coffee. Rick is certainly no altruist. He only gains true purpose and altruistic intent in Chapter 10 (i.e. Retro/Grade's first level), when he takes on his final mission that is the subject of the game, to undo all the damage he caused in forward-time. The gameplay integrates this theme in a fundamental way: nearly every button press in the game represents an abiogenetic miracle, conjuring up a formerly destroyed enemy ship from out of utter oblivion. The battle with the bosses have a similar dynamic but a greater level of intimacy, as Rick patiently takes back each of his laser blasts in a stepwise, doctorly fashion, surgically reassembling these destroyed giants, piece-by-piece.

There's something fulfilling about that dynamic. Perhaps it reflects a fundamental truth of the universe, at least as far as our minds might perceive it: there is no external conflict between good and evil- the challenge lies within ourselves, to maintain a calm balance even while resisting the chaos created by our constantly chattering minds, to resist our urge to project our fears and insecurities on others and the rest of the seemingly foreign universe. Achieving the flawless "Astro Admiral" achievement in Retro/Grade, particularly on the highest difficulty levels, requires the player to enter into almost a meditative state, to maintain a sustained, trance-like calmness amid the bright and colorful bullet hell happening all over the screen. I think that as fun as Retro/Grade is as a game, playing it (in moderation!) can also be useful practice in improving focused awareness, our ability to maintain serenity within the environments overcome with the hundreds of potential distractions that we are faced by every day.

The even greater truth is that there really is no "us" in the first place... the very distinction we make between ourselves and the rest of the universe is merely an illusion. In the game, laser strikes on Rick do not deplete his own health bar: they damage the fabric of space-time itself. Thus, the time reversal anomaly at the beginning of the game comes across to me as sort of an epiphany for Rick and for the player, too: it is a reminder that we must put aside our petty grievances and realize we are all in this together- a strike on Rick is a strike on everyone: friend and supposed enemy. So perhaps Nietzsche and Albert Camus were right after all: like the Greek king Sisyphus who Zeus doomed to spend eternity rolling a rock up a hill, maybe Rick Rocket really is happy despite his seemingly dire fate. He has the opportunity to spend eternity locked in a cycle of restoring balance, and what could be more ultimately fulfilling than that? If only we all had the chance to undo all of our mistakes.... Though in a way, we all do in fact have that opportunity. It starts with the simple realization of what these mistakes are.

I'm certain I left some important thematic elements out in my summary above, so I'd be interested in hearing others' thoughts on what messages Retro/Grade conveyed to them.


Re: The Metaphysics of Retro/Grade

Posted: Tue Oct 22, 2013 5:46 pm
by matt
Wow, that's really awesome. I definitely did want to embed a message even thought it a relatively humorous game. I'm not sure if you'd rather speculate or have me participate in the discussion, but you definitely are getting the meaning that I was hoping would come across. :)

Re: The Metaphysics of Retro/Grade

Posted: Tue Oct 29, 2013 11:52 am
by macaca
Hi Matt, Thanks for checking out my meta-analysis of Retro/Grade, I'm glad you feel I am on the right track, and that I've understood some of the meaning you tried to convey. It saddened me to read through various interviews that you had become down on the project. In the interview where you describe the effort you took to have the Uberbot perform its 4th-wall-breaking stare (i.e. when it looks straight into the screen at the player), you implied that your attention to subtle details may have been a hindrance during the game's development. However, I doubt it is possible to overstate the importance for game designers to direct some of their attention to convey things beneath the level of conscious perception, and it is an approach missing from far too many games. The emotional centers of the brain are, in fact, quite close to the actual center of the brain: artwork that makes its themes too obvious is unlikely to make it past the surface of our consciousness (or our neocortex).

While I may have made some wild leaps of inference in some parts of my last post (it was somewhat of a stream of consciousness, especially toward the end), I think the most important themes I talked about were processed on at least a subliminal level by everyone who spent any time playing Retro/Grade. I think a good example is the abiogenesis motif I mentioned briefly. Each level of Retro/Grade starts out with Rick's ship alone in a desolate void. But this darkness quickly transforms into a lively festival of colorful fireworks, all generated from the player's actions as Rick, who conjures the enemy spaceships out of thin air like a magician pulling doves from a hat.

It simply feels good to create life from nothing, to reverse death itself. Because it provides wish-fulfillment at the most primordial of levels, it is not hard to find examples of the abiogenesis motif in video games. One that made an impression on me was Okami, where the player's wolf character Amaterasu leaves a trail of flowers wherever she sets foot, reminiscent of forest spirit Shishigami in Miyazaki's timeless film Princess Mononoke. Another more recent example is found in thatgamecompany's Journey, which interestingly conveys the emergence of new life through the vibrant animation of inanimate objects (i.e. creatures made of cloth). Retro/Grade conveys new life in a similar way, since the spaceships which materialize in backward-time are made of inorganic material, but still dance and twirl as though they are alive (as I mentioned to you before, their movements remind me of ballerinas). But neither Okami nor Journey explore the abiogenesis motif with the subtlety of Retro/Grade, where it emerges organically, almost as a byproduct, from the game's backwards-time mechanic. As such, many players may not consciously be aware when they are playing Retro/Grade that their moment by moment actions are revolving around creation of life, but this unawareness may allow them to process this theme more deeply (or at least in an important, unique way) than other games that explore it more explicitly through player control of supernatural, god-like characters.

I am actually quite curious about the story behind all these elements in the Retro/Grade universe, and I appreciate that you are willing to share some of them with us in this forum. I don't think it really matters whether every single one of my interpretations reflects what you consciously intended. Nowadays there's a lot of focus on game designs explicitly engineered to foster "emergent gameplay" but I think all genuine art has a way of taking a life of its own, yielding results that are beyond what the artist may have initially planned. The artist creates a world governed by unique principles and sets it in motion, breathes life into it (a bit like abiogenesis itself!), and what emerges after that point is anyone's guess, though it can be extremely meaningful if the initial concept is inspired. Writers often experience this sort of phenomenon when they find that the characters they have created tend to write themselves and surprise them by some of the decisions they make. In Retro/Grade, your central idea to create a retro-causal universe (a concept which became popular in the 50s and has since been explored occasionally in film and literature, but I don't think has been depicted before in an interactive way) provided the fertile ground for many themes to be explored, of which abiogenesis is just one. I tried to cover some of the others in my last post, but there are lots more.

Of course the full value of Retro/Grade as a must-play game is not only in how it helps players explore metaphysical themes. It's also a lot of fun to play because of its marvelously original gameplay mechanics and its thoughtful level designs, which seem simple on the surface but are remarkably sophisticated and finely tuned. I'll probably try starting a separate thread on that topic at some point, which I will entitle "The Physics of Retro/Grade" to differentiate it from this thread.

Re: The Metaphysics of Retro/Grade

Posted: Wed Oct 30, 2013 5:34 pm
by matt
While we originally started working on the game just because we thought the idea of playing a game in backwards time was cool, as I continued working on it, it started to represent more.

In general, Retro/Grade to me is about peace. There are so many violent video games, and while I don't think they are bad for society or anything, I liked the idea about creating a game about un-violence as an interesting counterpoint to all the gratuitous violence in many games.

I imagined RIck Rocket as a Zapp Brannigan style character - obsessed with being a hero regardless of the cost. As you said, he is stuck in a groundhog day style predicament. He is doomed to keep fighting the same battle until he decides to find another solution to the Exnorian invasion. Unfortunately for him (and the space/time continuum), he is most likely too bullheaded to do so.

Maybe I should have put in a special ending after you beat the game several times that says something about trying a more diplomatic solution, which seems like the only way out of the time loop.

Re: The Metaphysics of Retro/Grade

Posted: Wed Oct 30, 2013 8:18 pm
by macaca
Wow, that's pretty cool that the main themes I picked up on were close to what you intended. This suggests to me that a lot of players picked up on what you were trying to wordlessly communicate. It also says a lot about video games as a unique means of artistic expression, as well as for what you managed to accomplish with Retro/Grade in particular.

Oh, and it's also a nice message. As for the special ending, it's an interesting idea but I personally don't think it is necessary. I think part of what makes Retro/Grade so successful is how these themes about nonviolence emerge just from playing the game. They are communicated directly to the player's subconscious without using any words, and I think they have a better chance of really sticking because it is much harder to reject subliminal messages. The more explicit messages about nonviolence have become so cliche nowadays ("World Peace") that no one really pays them any attention anymore.

Re: The Metaphysics of Retro/Grade

Posted: Thu Oct 31, 2013 9:08 pm
by matt
It's a shame that the game didn't reach a wider audience because I think it's a worthwhile message. Oh well!

Re: The Metaphysics of Retro/Grade

Posted: Sun Nov 17, 2013 5:14 pm
by Harry Sunderland
Sounds like I need to hit the bong and play Retro/Grade.

Re: The Metaphysics of Retro/Grade

Posted: Mon Nov 18, 2013 6:22 pm
by matt
haha! I wouldn't know, but let me know how it plays while high if you try it. :)