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Like the mad century philosophers of yore, I gouge my eyes out playing Destiny, mouth agape, head dripping and drooling with futures baroque until my ass is on the floor. I’ve had a vision and the vision was videogame neoliberalism, perfected. Guardians make their own fate. We knew what we were getting into from the start yet we plunged nonetheless. This time, maybe, it will be different.
Two years ago, on the icy moon of Europa, Beyond Light orchestrated one of the greatest one-two punch a shooter had ever thrown my way; a game of musical chairs where the chairs are actual orbital shuttles sending you past the stratosphere and the penalty for failure was nuclear annihilation. Take my hand, let's walk out in space.
« La fontaine de jouvence. », Clovis said.
A year ago, Vow of the Disciple had perhaps the most haunting image I've ever seen in Destiny. And it's not even the best part of that raid. Not when you can practice bullet horticulture on the body of a fifteen feet-tall alien after he kicked us out of existence. Not after the Upended. Destiny, in a way, keeps getting smaller as it expands outside the confines of our own solar system - towards a place where the up is down, where dreams are flesh and the waking world becomes a foolish expanse. 60 frames per seconds of pure cornucopia.
Lightfall has for itself the Root of Nightmares raid. Vexcalibur. Some of the most broken, explosive meta-build combinations in the new Strand subclass, using its grapple as a means to punch faces or marrying crowd-control abilities with Osteo Striga’s poison-filled submachinegun mania. It's always the same; shoot the orb, grab the buff, watch a million numbers leak through the cracks of the monitor. But what an orb this is. I haven’t even beaten the new raid’s first boss and I’m already sold, devoted almost. It’s a dude, big, Explicator of Planets and whatnot, dragging with its demise the obscure promise that as we move these celestial bodies around a dark planetarium their galactic configuration may actually change, a symmetry to match our damage phases and remake the universe in our image. The main goal of Root of Nightmares is for us to resurrect a famous god of pain just so that we can kill him all over again - its sarcophagus pointing skywards towards this Traveler we’ve called home for a decade and which now lies broken in the middle of our star map. At its best, when things click and lore makes dots connect, Destiny feels terribly simple - circle meeting triangles in our ironsight, obscurity followed by sudden light. A tree of silver wings bloomed, full of loot. My assault rifle explodes and it’s this explosion that invests me in history. A gun is a text is a person and each person is a revelation that happens through repeated touch, the forming of new patterns by building their perfect legend in our minds. That Destiny is so concerned with giving its guns personhood, through their use and the way each tend to inform and shape relationships inside the fiction, probably reflects its tendencies to imagine the feedback loop as something sacred - to grind is to reach God or as Brandon Taylor put it in a series of hilarious tweet about something entirely unrelated:
“You can take the Skyfather out of heaven, but you can’t take the desire for a Skyfather out of man. 😤”
“Y’all be giving Erasmus vibes every single day.”
But it’s got me thinking; Destiny as an eternal vacation. Lightfall is far from the best Destiny has ever been in terms of its world feeling like a lived-in place by putting forth unique gameplay propositions (chasing an exotic “whisper” down platforming depths, ragged-riches or treasure of a Leviathan) but it is the most fun I’ve ever had with its gunplay; the build-crafting has been streamlined, dumb-downed even, and in exchange for complexity the moment-to-moment experience feels swifter, allowing for immediate self-expression and, by extension, an easier doorway into Destiny’s true endgame : Building the most fashionable killing machine this side of the Milky Way. But I digress. Now that we’ve entered the realm of absolute omniheroics, that excavated narrative threads are starting to pull together - awkwardly killing-off old characters like the A.I war machine Rasputin while graciously upscaling the larger scale of its kinaesthetics - and the promise of a star-wide power fantasy has essentially been fulfilled it’s easier to realize that Destiny has always been hammering the same point home: We will not go gently into that good night. Dream’s end. If you dig enough inside the Vexcalibur exotic quest unlocked post-campaign the game rewards us with a sight that just made smile; a full-3D visualization of the Veil, this expansion’s incomprehensible McGuffin. There’s been a lot of uproar around the nature of the object in the community but I, for one, loved it. It’s a cyclopean hourglass, mixed soil of Light and Dark containing an abstract representation of the memory of the universe that we find in the campaign by descending deep into the heart of a cybernetic city hidden behind Neptune, inhabited by the ghosts of people who’ve chosen to reside in the wood-wide web when the fighting started. And underneath it - sustaining this phantasm - is the Veil. A purple root of psychedelics - matter and its antithesis merged into one. Destiny’s all in there. This longest of summers is coming to a close and as we approach entropy’s center, the shapes begin to feel more familiar. A pyramid filled with horse figurines. Bones of a whale from an alien moon. An hourglass - a « Veil » under which we once slept - powering the galactic engine, paraphernalia sipping back out of the black hole. All this time sunk into a game who, at the end of the day, is interested in grass and trinklets. That’s where the prestige lies for Bungie. Bringing us back to Earth.
The best we can do is burn our way out of here. [Killed by the Architects.]
Arrest of a stone Buddha lies.
It’s not immediately apparent nor is the revelation striking in nature but the lie or, rather, the absence of telling permeates each frame. Flair is the primary mode of conveyance here ; the charm of retro games meets the stylishness of a John Woo flick. Hitman is searching for an answer in 70s France. Take the dread of Slavic game-design and watch it morph into high-concept anime motions. You’re fast and lucky enough so you don’t plan your actions too far. You kill with one shot and you never miss. It’s the kind of nihilistic manifesto games have become so good at over the years, where killing turns into an operation of existential purge. What’s the point of moving forward when death is so clearly in sight ? We’ve all seen this story - this swan song – a million times. Virtual entrapments. This play, repeated in front of us, by us. In a sense, even before us. You know from minute one, nested in this “fausse” Notre-Dame with a gun to the priest’s temple, how it all ends. Killer is Dead.
But let’s rewind nonetheless. What is Arrest of a stone Buddha about ? Like I said, it’s explicitly about the back of the box : An assassin and a city and a question. There’s no point in really teasing it any further ; it’s the story of a man searching for meaning in-between the killings that punctuate his life. Though perhaps we can see it in reverse ; actually, let’s look at it this way. It’s the story of a man actively searching for meaning within the killings themselves. So every time his job’s done he sits on a bench with a friend, his contractor – his lover ? Lines are blurred anyway. And then comes a question. “When’s the next assignment ?” It’s a one-way conversation between the world and his shadow. ”Lanky got killed.” No response – none that matters anyway. He mutters a few words as Erik Satie‘s Gnossienne plays in the background. If it wasn’t evident enough beforehand, I’ll reiterate for good measure ; Arrest of a stone Buddha is not just moody, it’s bleak.
“Just find something okay ?“
Now you roam the streets from dusk till dawn. Light a cigarette on your way to the movies. Or scratch that, turn around and booze yourself into altering the very soundscape of the game in some Parisian cafe. It’s the other side of the experience : Call it daily-reality simulator. Shenmue impersonator. A performative exercice in living stuck inside a death loop. From the graveyard to the bar and back again, the only certainty is our forward movement in time. Somedays a storm, somedays a mere wandering. Until you reach the date that’s been circled in red above your bed. This 7th of November 1976. The day one chooses to die.
The body count of Buddha is thankfully ridiculous. Every gunfight acts as the missing link in a series of finales that keep on stacking upon one another. At times it’s exhausting, an impossible march where enemies keep pouring out of each side of the screen until we either make an escape or join the growing pile. But one does not rush to the finishing line here – the death drive must be consumed, soaked-in through accumulation. There’s no denying the scene is absurd, but contemplate it long enough and it forces a certain kind of empathy upon you. The relentlessness with which Buddha forces you to slog through murderous armies demands a pause, a constant inhabitance in this body of labour – it’s one kill to a thousand, all located at the source of your character. Breathe in, then dance. This is By Yeo at his best : Beauty by blunt force; a trauma that outlasts the bang of the iron. If Arrest of a stone Buddha was to be shrunk down to its most basic elements, it would be a matter of binaries. Left or Right. Whisky or murder. Which direction spares us a bullet and which one keeps the killer going for another day? Bullseye or bust. An affair of life and death in the plural – or rather of exquisite repetition, of withstanding this dying in service of something. I noted earlier that the gunfights of Arrest of a stone Buddha were a unique gesture of pedestrian violence ; looking back on it, I think a better term would be “limping”. Failure is inevitable, the game makes sure of that (the further you move through a shooting gallery, the more accurate the goons around you become and sometimes a cruel trick is pulled on you ; just as you’re about to walk out of the frame, you meet your fate at the end of a barrel summoned by off-screen depths). Weapons are made irrelevant by their empty magazines, so the only way to procure yourself another is to wrestle one away from your agressors. This in turn requires a closer approach, leaving you vulnerable to the pace of the game’s incessant happening. There is always something, both wonderfully intricate and brutally evident, going on in those exchanges of bullets – dodged shots followed by a collective charge, a scope adjusting its aim with your skull. Out of fire and out of time. The key here is to embrace how perpetual the collapse is in hindsight. You get good at it eventually, it’s still just a videogame after all. But the feeling never really goes away. Miss the coup de théâtre and another swiftly comes your way. Now your move friendo ; you have to, keep walking. Shooting. Doing. Something’s got to give, so even when it means nothing a choice must be made. Hell or high water.
Every assassination attempt begins with Buddha at a standstill. Tinted windows for a stray car. A restaurant table whose dishes are getting cold. The killer and the target. Hold [R] to aim your weapon ; press [X] to shoot – and then the music starts.
“I’ve got to get the hell out of here.“
In Arrest of a stone Buddha, every assassination attempt culminates in a single frame of grotesque still life. The pure and quiet spectacle of sidescrolling generation. Stop, start ; and suddenly, a wave.
A parking lot, overflowing.
Mobsters by the dozen, all converging
On this single point in time
And space, where you lie.
A forest shootout leaving
“I have a train to take.“
To nowhere, in particular.
To a room with a view,
To a rooftop, another
Man is sitting at a bus stop with
Ten corpses down.
In the streets of Arrest of a stone Buddha, I always stroll with my hands in my pockets. It’s not really about the style, it’s performance. I am comfortably away from the simulacra but I wish to engage, to blend-in. At night, the edges of my screen become vectors of paranoïa ; silhouettes in trench coat walk past me quickly and I come to fear their passage. They’re just bots – pallid imitations of behaviour – but my violent strides have produced this strange overlapping motion where I am, simultaneously, above and beneath. My rampage invades every spaces of the city – bullet wishes against glass pedestrians. They share my proximity for a fleeting second before disappearing again, never interacting, never harming my little killer in any way. The greatest trick Arrest of a Stone Buddha pulls on the player is to switch perceptions into a set of compulsory habits, from one space to the other; what does it take to press the trigger ? Nothing more – and nothing less – than a corridor to dwell in the levels where I can properly identify and recognize better. A target that was never really there in the first place.
It's a story of the meaningless decisions that animate everyday life.
It's a tale about choosing to be someone else, even if it’s just for the time it takes to smoke a cigarette.
A lie on a respirator.
A fantasy fed one day at a time, until the date is reached. Until it’s impossible to go on anymore.
7th of November.
You’re alone in your room. I am alone in mine. You hold the first button to aim.
Then I press [X] to shoot.
Or maybe not. Maybe both decisions are taken at the same time.
Maybe in the end we keep on dancing.
In this life or the next.
Wolves come out at dusk to curse the rest of mankind. The fated prank is past, must return, will return the land to its proper state. A legend written out of habit. Link, Zelda and Ganon dropped-off in the wet remains of a dead MMO. Amygdalaes and termites fall through the sky, shadow bugs, of sort, whose tears I crave. Village tasks, wolven tasks. A cliché quest. Light to all.
Lonely fields, but not empty fields. There should be a thousand links but only I remain. Subservient to the game’ staccato logic. Buttons that push themselves. Defibrillated dungeons, castles that don’t wanna be alive anymore, glooming, shimmering, looking down on me. Places that exist as their most common denominator - sky city is a city in the sky. We’re never crashing down. High-definition lows followed by trombone highs when melody permits - sipping-in like Ross and Reznor got trapped beneath the map. Heroism absent from itself. Faded gold. Grandiose. Muted.
Twilight Princess is not the Zelda game we need but the one we deserve. Twisted women on our back with malformed bodies and shadow appendages arousing suspicion. Trust a teleporter to not shred me to bits. Use the tool and then discard the tool when pressure points stretch themselves far and thin into the horizon. Whistling-by. A horse that controls like a race car carries me towards the dark lord. Back in a castle that’s not even haunted anymore. Break the princess out of her stasis and save the day - Midna can’t stay. Fused shards on flat grass. Three people looking at each other on dried fantasy.
Neck mirrors. Neck snaps.
Twilight no more.