At one point, several months ago, I made a particular entry in my online journal. In it, I wrote of the next King of Fighters game (2002, at the time). I was disgruntled over the announced character roster, and I was intent on expressing myself in the matter.
It seemed self-evident what I was doing. I criticize because I care. So I was as perplexed as I was irritated, when I received a series of scathing, disgusted, dismissive comments in reply. Not over my criticism, but over the games themselves -- apparently in agreement with a sentiment that I never intended.
The King of Fighters is going downhill as a series, these replies claimed. Playmore should halt it before they just embarrass themselves (or anyone else) any more than they have already. SNK almost had something interesting going for a short while, but now they're become even worse than they ever were.
The most recent game was a disaster as far as this person was concerned. It was ugly, disconcerting, sloppy, and strange. It generally left a bad taste in her mouth. Its very existence seemed to offend her.
I was perplexed. I honestly wasn't interested in discussing the issue, from the tone of the posts. But I got sucked in, as usual. In my typical fashion, I gave pages of analysis in reply. I outlined all of the positive elements of the game that I could find. My eventual point was that, as far as I was concerned, The King of Fighters 2001 was one of the most ingenious fighting games I'd encountered in a long time. It was perhaps the best game yet in the whole series. Certainly the most conceptually coherent.
Further, this was the game where the series finally seemed to get in touch with several key aspects of its identity which had been waiting for years to come into bloom. Once I got past the initially-unflattering surface, I found one of the most honest and inspired games I'd played in quite a while. All it took was some time and care to see it. Further, it was made when SNK was in a state of chaos. It's something of a miracle that the game came together as well as it did, all things considered.
And yet all of my explanation was again met with blunt dismissal. Maybe I was right, she sniffed. But none of that mattered, if the game didn't make itself attractive enough to warrant further investigation.
I was infuriated beyond reason. The conversation was over.
At the time I didn't entirely understand why her words bore into me as deeply as they did. Why was KoF2001 so significant? More and more, I felt its import far beyond its reality as a mere videogame.
From a practical standpoint, this was just another chapter of a cult fighting game series. A series which is known for being inaccessible for those unwilling to invest an unprecedented amount of time and energy. It was another typical genre piece, in a fairly limited genre.
And yet, to say this is not unlike saying that Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is just another suspense film. A boring, sloppy, unpleasant attempt at that. There's only so far that rational deconstruction can go.
Grandia II is just another RPG. It has beautiful production values, but it has no soul. No will. Skies of Arcadia is every bit as typical a genre piece, but it's one of the few videogames to truly touch me in years. Its life bursts with confidence from every seam. How can one account for this?
Meaning doesn't lie in objects in and of themselves; it lies in intent. A rock on its own means nothing in particular, except perhaps to a geologist. But a rock on a table, in the middle of a field -- is it still only a rock? Or now is it something more? Come to think of it, a simple rock can say a lot no matter where it lies -- but in a sense that's exactly the point. It's not the rock; it's what it holds, that imbues it with life.
No, there's something else about this game. Something different. A stake big enough to be worth getting worked up over.
The game is alive. The King of Fighters is already one of the most portentous series to come along in its genre, but the sheer volume of meaning in 2001 is terrifying. As with the strongest of art, it has a distinct and complex personality. It breathes. It thinks, in what could be construed as an intelligent way. It is every bit as human as any man born of woman -- except that with the proper care it will far outlive anyone who exists today.
Art is life. They are synonymous. Further, art is more important than you or I. We will rot. With precautions, art will persist. It will speak to future generations as the Romans speak to us now, and as we never will. It will selflessly give comfort and insight in return to those who care for it, when no time-addled human is willing or able to do the same.
As we create art, it becomes our benevolent companion race. Just as without us to appreciate it, art has no meaning -- without it, life has no conscious meaning for us. There is no past. There is no future. There is only what our senses pick up from our fleeting days as we slowly decompose, taking our memories to our graves.
And more than most videogames one is likely to encounter from recent years -- in this admittedly embryonic medium -- The King of Fighters 2001 is an example of this principle. It's ineffable; I can connect the dots, but that doesn't draw the picture. The point is that it's beyond a simple breakdown.
Yes, it embodies the strategic element on which KoF has always been based. It's more energetic than past games. The tone picks up on an ever-present, critical distinguishing facet of the series which had never been given full focus in the past. I can illustrate the circularity of one internal system after another, and how they collect more peripheral meaning with every pass they make in their orbits. But none of that in and of itself is the point. If I tried to explain what was the point, I wouldn't make the slightest bit of sense. At least... not in and of myself. All I might be able to give are bookmarks.
Where meaning lies in this instance, however, is in that very life that the game holds.
If art is in the eye, then to see another's concept of art is to look into her eyes.
Does she see the humanity?
What I saw in her eyes, it scared me.
What if I had been the game? What if I were the game?
And then it struck me:
Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh.