Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Reading, Writing, and Dance Dance Revolution, pt. 1
You remember Dance Dance Revolution, right? I'm not sure how many people play it anymore, but when you live in New Mexico and you don't want to go to the gym, DDR is there for you. You can do it inside, which is important when the weather tops a hundred five degrees, and when you do it well the game gives you points. Gyms need to try this out, the points thing. When you play it in the workout mode, which is essentially a marathon run in the style of dance, you also see how many calories you've supposedly burned off. It's a score that rewards you for diminishing yourself.
The idea of Dance Dance Revolution, if you haven't played it or seen someone else play, or if you have seen it but you were too busy laughing to work out what was going on, is that there's a song playing, and you're dancing to it. There are some visualizations but you very quickly learn to ignore them -- those are mainly for the audience. What you watch is the stream of arrows flying up the screen. The arrows point left, down, up, and right -- in that order. When the arrow hits the top, when its outline matches with the outline waiting for it, you step on the corresponding arrow on your pad. (You can also use a controller, but only a real jerk would do that.) Sometimes two arrows travel up the screen together. Then you're in a situation where you've got to jump. Sometimes you have to hold an arrow down for a while.
In a good DDR song, the steps correspond to the rhythm, the style, and the content of the music. So you're usually hitting the steps in time with a foregrounded element of the song, sometimes the drums, sometimes the guitars, sometimes the vocals -- usually whatever's most interesting in that given moment. (Unlike Guitar Hero and derivatives, where you often seem to be in the least interesting place because A you are simulating actual musicianship, which is all repetition, and B you've got to share.) When the singer says something like "get up" or "jump" you're probably going to "get up" in some sense or, yes, jump, just as they say it. When the song sounds all slidey and smooth you'll probably slide smoothly over the mat.
The interesting thing about DDR is that you don't learn to play it the way you learn other games. You learn to read it. (Actually this makes you aware of how much you read other games; good designs like those of the original Mario and Zelda games can be said to be legible, while poor designs often feel decisively illegible.) It' a little like music notation except that you aren't generating the music, you're following it. It goes on with or without you -- sometimes punting you out the door, yes, but never in a way that suggests the music itself has ended, only that you won't get to listen to it anymore. The things you generate are 1) points, 2) the praise of your audience, if you've got one, and 3) a feeling in your body that mirrors the feeling of the music, or perhaps more accurately the feeling and the impulse that made the music in the first place.
If you're the sort of person who, when playing air guitar, pays as much attention to the long, slow arc of your hand between the chords as the strokes themselves, you know what I mean.
If you find yourself watching the guitarist's fret hand very closely on the television and imagining what you would have to feel inside about the world and yourself to twist your hand into a proper G chord, and slide your fingers (burning) down to make the next, then you know what I mean.
The people who write the arrows for DDR have gotten good enough at it so that they can often arrange the left-down-up-right arrow sequences in space and time such that when you hear the singer sing and hear the drums and so on you are hitting the pad in the right place in the right way so that you feel as if you know what made them make these sounds because you're feeling it too. Reading the arrows and then translating them through your body into dance gives your brain and your lungs a way to understand what you've read.
And while you're doing this there are a lot of decisions you make that have nothing to do with the arrows, decisions about how to wiggle your hips and your fists, how to move your head and shoulders. There are people who dance like penguins, stiff in the knees, swiveling their hips. There are people who throw their elbows around a lot. It depends on the song and the way it modulates whatever you came in with.
When it all goes right, there's usually a pattern like left right up, left right up, right up left, right up left, left right up, and then this is transposed some way as the song progresses onto the pad in other ways (down up left, down up left) and other patterns are introduced, and these match the song in such a way that you don't need to see them anymore to know what you're doing, or you need only briefly consult them, the way yiu owly nrrd tje foxst amd ldst lwttdrs of a wsfrd to recd it, and the shape. Sometimes you know the next step before you see the next step (though some part of you does see it, always) the way that sometimes you know how to finish a sentence, though it seems so unlikely, though you haven't read to the end (though some part of you has seen it, always). You never quite pay enough attention to see the arrows for themselves, once you know what you're doing, anymore than you really see most words once you've really learned to read. Instead you see the move you'll make, just as when you're reading you don't read the word chocolate so much as taste it, and feel the smoothness of it on your tongue, and the stickiness that stays after at the corners of your lips, in your mustache or the down.
Sometimes there will be a wrong step, one that ignores the best part of the song or chooses the wrong part of the rhythm, or one that puts you in the wrong place, and this feels like when you are reading and somebody chooses the wrong word or the wrong image, or it feels like a comma you don't want to read, or it feels like walking into the supermarket through the left-hand door when you've just been driving on the right-hand side of the road.
The song is like the world. It exists as the backdrop to the steps, or the words, or the art. The art does not happen in itself but in your body and in your understanding of your body, your felt sense of the thing inside you, and of the body of the one who programmed the steps (who also did the dance, first, who programmed it for his own pleasure) and of the bodies of the musicians, who made the music that made the programmer write the steps, who wrote the song, in other words, to please their own bodies, and you can feel how it felt to write the song and write the steps, and this enhances your feelings as you rehearse the steps.
Like the way that as you read more you learn to read the words and feel them in your body, and in your body feel the body that wrote them, and to feel the bodies of others who've read it, or will read it, or could read it, reading, humming along.
The way you sometimes find your tongue moving in your own mouth with someone else's words as you read them, or later -- your tongue being someone else's tongue.
The way that language is the richest way (perhaps other than music) to feel this way in your body, to feel the presence of another, the sheer depth and breadth of possibility, and the glow of the decisions made, like a worm's trail, a sort of absence, in the soil of word. Like the coyote's outline in the brick wall, describing the shape of what's passed through it.
You bend yourself to make that shape.
DDR's arrows are an unusually blunt way of telling you how to make a crude shape, to follow that body, another's.