Once again, I am talking about a video game that was only ever released on a now-obsolete console. Specifically, Elite Beat Agents, released on the Nintendo DS in 2006. It belongs to the rhythm game genre, in which the player must correctly tap a sequence of buttons – the most famous example being Dance Dance Revolution, which had a physical pad to dance on and became an arcade classic, although you may also be familiar with the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games. The first thing EBA contributes to the genre is its use of the DS’s touchscreen, in which you must tap the correct ‘button’ with the stylus. The second is its incredibly absurd yet incredibly heartfelt storytelling. Stories in rhythm games are not completely unheard of, but they’re generally like stories in porn – a shallow aesthetic that at best creates an overall context for sequences. For example, the ‘story’ in Guitar Hero III is really a series of venues your band is playing in interspersed with guitar battles against Tom Morello, Slash, and Satan. EBA commits to telling a series of stories to which the gameplay is meaningfully contributing.
If the concept of a dance sequence meaningfully contributing to something sounds absurd, you’re gonna be thrown off completely by the rest of this. The story concept is that you are a member of the Elite Beat Agents, a team of cheerleaders dressed like the Men In Black sent in to dance for and cheer on people in peril; it’s presented in the campiest possible manner, with each ‘episode’ starting with a semi-animated comic of the person in peril that (almost) always ends with them screaming – with exaggerated white eyes and sharp teeth – “HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEELP!!!”. Your boss is shown watching this on a giant television screen, and he turns to the camera dramatically, yelling the delightfully Engrishy phrase “Agents are… GO!!!”. Each level is divided into three sections set to one song; so long as you keep the standard of play consistent enough, each section climaxes with its protagonist achieving each task they set themselves, and if you fail you’re treated to their humiliating defeat and forced to start over.
On top of all of this, the missions you’re sent on aren’t just absurd, but are different degrees of absurd. “Sk8er Boi” takes a fairly straightforward problem – driving a pregnant woman to the hospital – and then, as you see, presents it as a series of stunts right out of a Jackie Chan movie. “I Was Born To Love You” presents a caricature of Leonardo Da Vinci trying to make a caricature of Mona Lisa smile so he can paint her. In terms of sheer absurdity of premise, nothing can top “Anthem”, in which a washed-up baseball player finds his groove by fighting a golem at a theme park using the power of baseball, but there’s also premises that are absurd in that you wouldn’t expect this character to show up in a game with this childlike, cheerful tone, let alone as a protagonist – the biggest example of this has to be “Material Girl”, which stars a pair of socialites who are clear caricatures of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie who wash up on a deserted island and are forced to survive. The game treats them with neither condemnation nor condonation; they are simply another person to help, and it takes joy in their success.
Which points to one of the other unique and wonderful elements of the game. It’s generally agreed that there are two kinds of camp: low camp, which is something intended to be serious and comes off as absurd, and high camp like Rocky Horror Picture Show or the Sixties Batman show, in which everything is crafted for maximum absurdity. What has become more popular in the last few decades has been works that attempt to tell serious stories but slather on a layer of irony and awareness of the absurdity of the action. Partly this is a result of Joss Whedon’s overpowering influence on genre since Buffy The Vampire Slayer, in which his combination of high melodrama with ironic jokes was imitated by people who aren’t nearly as good at telling when a joke will completely undermine the tone of a piece. I think it’s also a side effect of the rise of fandom as a cultural force and demographic; fandom has a way of attracting both creative and insightful geniuses and some of the dumbest and most insecure people on the planet who will, when faced with criticism of something they enjoy, find any way they believe will hurt the feelings of a critic right back.
One of the cliche Bad Fan mentalities is trying to pass off sincerity as irony when convenient – something like, it’s intentionally bad as a commentary on the genre or something. This is something I can sympathise with because I recognise it in myself; one of the things I admire about The Shield is that it’s intentionally ugly and abrasive but also lacks any kind of irony or distance. It is shamelessly ugly. I also still admire Community in how both the ironic jokes and the melodrama are real and sincere, and what other people often take as indecision (or straight-up disappearing up its own ass) I take as a willingness to be vulnerable and explore that vulnerability. Conversely, one of the things I dislike about the MCU – perhaps the major thing – is that both its irony and its seriousness come off as defense mechanisms, as if trying to have it both ways. You can’t take it too seriously, there are jokes about how the costume looks stupid! You have to take it seriously, it has commentary on the working class! One thing I’ve been trying to get a handle on is that, when people criticise some aspect of me (or something I identify with), I can say “But that’s what I like about that.”
Elite Beat Agents very successfully threads the needle between absurd and sincere at the same time by using heightened and even comedic tools to tell actual stories. Strip away the aesthetic and each mission has clear stories with clear goals and clearly defined outcomes for success and failure, as well as clear and realistic emotions underpinning the protagonists. “Sk8er Boi” is rooted in both a genuine concern for the wellbeing of pregnant women and a fear of being a bad person; “Anthem” is rooted in a fear of being washed-up. One of the unspoken things about story in video games is that it acts as a reward for players, who can feel the joy of fixing problems for other people, and EBA takes full advantage of that – I know playing through that I become deeply invested in saving the day even through the weird way the stories are delivered. This is a case of storytellers committing completely to a particular and absurd language, and if you don’t want to go along with it, fine, play something else.
One can see this in the one mission that breaks the style of the game: a little girl discovers her father was killed in an accident, and the mission becomes helping her with her grief. The game intentionally pulls back from most of its style – the girl does not scream “HEEEEEEEEELP!” with an exaggerated face, Commander Khan does not turn to the camera and utter his catchphrase, the Agents wave their hands in the air rather than dance, and the action is much more subdued. One could interpret this as artistic cowardice, but in practice I find the mission very moving (even through the song chosen to backdrop being a fucking Chicago song). I enjoy the way it puts the overall decisions in sharp relief, and indeed it feels less like downplaying the game’s elements and more exaggerating one aspect of it.
It also turns out that this is planting the seeds for the finale. The climax of the game is that aliens invade Earth and ban all music; all the characters you’ve helped up until now have been placed in ‘detention centres’, and they all cry for help from the EBA together; the Agents arrive and lead everyone through a musical resistance. There is a darkest hour moment in which the Agents are turned to stone, and it’s the little girl who returns and leads a chant that evolves into the chords of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”; the pleasure of a very traditional They’re Back moment of glory is underlined by the fact that she was the most serious element of the game; helping her has come back to help you, and it leads into a We Are All One feeling as every character in the game works together to beat back the aliens. It’s manipulative storytelling but in an honest way – that is to say, using language we are all familiar with, and indeed the pleasure comes from how absurd it is. It’s a next level of camp: not unintentional absurdity, nor intentional absurdity, but rather something that is absurd and yet allowed to be taken seriously anyway. When the whole world chants “Agents are… GO!” at the end, I can’t help but smile.