By Mr. GeckoBiHu
(scroll down below for more information about this article and the author)
In 2018, a genius game developer named “yeo” living in Moscow broke into the gaming sphere with his 8-bit retro style beat'em up RPG The friends of Ringo Ishikawa. About a rebellious Japanese high school student Ringo and his friends’ last autumn as high school students, it’s like the Kunio-kun series are modernized, but in a reverse gesture, by introducing concepts of “passing time” and the “elimination of objectives”, brings an unresolvable sadness of being into this old genre. Most of the time in this game, except for some key plot points, we are not forced to complete any objectives. The game won’t even teach you how to play it. You can go to class, have small talk with your mate on the school roof, pick some other school students with different color uniforms to fight randomly on the streets, go to the gym to train yourself, or miss everything mentioned above entirely and just wander around the streets. You can smoke a cigarette on a park bench in the middle of the night, or you can eat nothing but will never “starve to death”; You can just sit on your bed “playing video games”, or just do absolutely nothing, and time just passes through your eyes. In most sectors of the game, the progression system is “objective-free”, time itself becomes the progression. So you can also go to the bookstore, buy a book and “read” it, for example, “FD’ Brother”– a naughty reference of Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov– but you won’t actually “read it”. You just press a button, and see Ringo’s gesture of holding the book and the numbers indicating pages running. And when the number reaches the end, see Ringo’s one line remark on it. The “time” you “press the button” is the “time” you “read”, although we don’t actually “read” anything. So even we are still left with various activities to do and can be content with completing each of them in-game, but the openness, the aimlessness and the irreversibility of time cause a consistent uncertainty within the game itself and swing the player in it. That’s also why when the game ends, when the friends of Ringo Ishikawa, the gang who fought alongside him in the park at the beginning of the game, start to walk their separate ways, leaving behind Ringo Ishikawa alone on the platform in the rain, fighting waves and waves of enemies, we can not help but notice an emotion gut punch coming in: Oh! I am disappearing! It is just like what Roy Batty said at the end of Blade Runner. The black fades in, and Ringo’s unreadable 8-bit face starts to disappear in the rain in front of us, like tears in the rain.
Jean-Pierre Melville, John Woo and Louis Malle
In 2020, yeo published his second 8-bit retro style game Arrest of a stone Buddha and in a more radical and minimalistic way, conducted his experiment on “duration” in the game. This more melancholy story about an assassin living in Paris 1976, is divided into two separate sectors which take turns forming a cycle: side-scroll, high intensity shoot’em-up; aimless wandering down on Paris’ streets.
In the former, you have to discover some rules yourself: your bullets are always lethal and always kill, but an absurd amount of enemies will run towards you, facing and from behind like waves and you can’t reload, so the only option you have is to rip a new gun straight from the nearest enemies’ hands right when you’re empty. On top of that you can only “slow-walk”, and can only take a couple of hits, and unless you reach a “transition point”, enemies will infinitely spawn. So you “have to” shoot every enemy right when they appear and before they fire and keep moving forward while repeatedly turning back to shoot any enemies spawn behind you at the same time, intensity reaching hysteria.
In the latter, on the other hand, after briefly talking to the middleman you are thrown right into the dim Paris streets and “completely aimless”. On the street block containing only a drug store(selling sleeping pills), a cinema, a bar(selling smoke, to buy when you're empty), a clothing store, your own apartment, a roof of a high rise with an elevator which contains nothing and a museum, your only goal is to wander. But no matter what you do, or do not do, time will still pass, cycling day and night, until the next “hit”. Sleeping pills can fast forward a night, but most of the days you can’t buy it, and you also can’t take it before a certain time. Except for the middleman you briefly talk to after every mission, you have basically zero NPCs to actually “interact with” on these Paris streets, except for the minimum dialogue when you buy stuff. And there's almost nothing to accumulate. You have nothing to do with no one, they’re like phantoms. There’s only you, and time.
It is until I don’t know how many nights that, when Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes No.1 plays, it hits me: isn’t this Louis Malle’s Le Feu follet? We’re like Alain Leroy in the film, just rehabilitated and came out of a hospital(from hysteria), but still cut off from a meaningful world. The same tune from Le Feu follet appears here hence summons a familiar soul, and he also has a lover. In the game, there’s a door on the streets, if you go in you will fade into (which appears to be) a woman’s apartment. But every time you go in (if you are allowed in), you will only see the protagonist sitting on the edge of the bed, and on the bed “seems to be” a sleeping woman turning her back to us, or maybe it’s just nothing? We have no idea due to the pixelated art style. I’ve been there a full day in-game, but except for the clouds outside the window, nothing changed, except for the befalling of the night.
It’s also the world of Jean-Pierre Melville. It belongs to that same Paris in Le Samouraï. The game also happens in this Melville-isticly minimal, silent and penancing world. The soundtrack tremors as if the low frequency roar of a beast, echoing with this silent tiger.(1) And it’s also John Woo’s world. In the shoot’em-up section, the absurd numbers of bullets and enemies and intensity, and the climbing note in the soundtrack indicating the fate of a tragic hero, embodies John Woo’s ecstasy everywhere. Maybe that’s why, the only things you can “own” in-game are the coat and the glasses worn by Chow Yun Fat. And we can also fleet dashingly on a yacht just like Ah Jong in The Killer, even though the dashingness itself might be fleeting. I realized very late that A Better Tomorrow and The Killer were born exactly out of John Woo’s admiration of Melville’s work and the existentialism wave of the time, and his attempt to recapture it.(2)
There is a cinema in the game where you can go in and “see films”, but since the screening room is shown from the side, we won’t actually “see” what’s on screen, which makes it just like Ringo’s “reading”. We can only see light projecting through the room. Just like the protagonist's unreadable face. We go in just to “pass time”. But through music we know that maybe someone’s heart is breaking? These three directors’ works overlaying each other in Arrest of a stone Buddha hence is not a coincidence. It’s just yeo doing aesthetic archeology during the creative process, and in the game’s credit, these three directors are directly mentioned.
Tehching Hsieh's Doing Time
But it’s not enough to exemplify what makes this game so outstandingly unique if we only mention these three directors: how it uses “duration”. It is as what Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Theaters series is trying to convey–he exposes his film during the whole duration of a film’s runtime, resulting in a dazzling white on the screens within his photos–duration isn’t there. It is elsewhere. And it is exactly the game’s usage of duration, separating it from 99% of other games.
It is here, I have to mention Tehching Hsieh. He jumped ship from Taiwan to America as an illegal migrant in 1974 and started his “Lifeworks” soon after. In his piece One Year Performance 1978–1979 (also known as Cage Piece) he imprisoned himself in a wooden cage he built within his workshop using his own carpenter skills and drew up specific rules “prohibiting himself from speaking to anyone, reading, writing, listening to radio or watching television for a whole year”. In his One Year Performance 1981–1982 (also known as Outdoor Piece), he “prohibited himself from entering any buildings, metro, trains, automobiles, airplanes, ships, caves or tents for a full year”. I think these two pieces best describe the ontological thoughts in yeo’s game design. We are drowned by objectives in 99% of the games today. Even if it’s an open-world game with day and night cycles, if we do not complete specific “objectives”, the game’s progression will be “halted”. Yeo's design in the wandering Paris section in Arrest of a stone Buddha is the exact opposite. In a revolting gesture, it breaks these unwritten rules of late capitalism through treating “the elimination of objectives” as a dogma. We are thrown into “duration”, expelled from completing objectives, and some unspoken rules of a gaming are revolted. It thus creates a huge force pulling the player together with their “reality” itself into it. So we will also feel naked in the void when the game ends, because “reality” has been ripped. The only thing we have left is the Real, time’s nothingness and we no longer have a place to inhabit. We become IGNIS FATUUS, keep wandering, keep “passing time”.
One of the strokes of absolute genius is that yeo put a museum in the game: when we walk in we see a series of “seems to be impressionist paintings”, but unrecognizable due to the pixelated resolution. We sit in front of the paintings, not to “read” the paintings but to “sit there”. It was at this very moment, I felt an arrow shot through the screen, the game and the player’s real time, and was captured by this blinding brightness. I was “passed through” by something and that was exactly “time". We, the player, become “beings-in-art” and “beings-in-time” at the same instant. We are the assassin who is looking at the paintings in the museum. We become art’s “subject” itself in the game.
As for the shooting section? In Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1980–1981 (also known as Time Clock Piece), he set a punch clock in his workshop and demanded himself to punch the clock every single hour on the hour for a whole year. Every time he punched the clock he took a picture of himself. And as some kind of “remain" of this piece, these photos together yielded a six minutes silent short film, and we see Tehching Hsieh beside the punch clock, as if entering into a dazzling trance, a kind of ecstasy in “jouissance”, Tehching Hsieh’s face trembling, hair growing rapidly and the pointers of the clock rotating dementedly. Isn’t this trance the same hysterical back-and-forward turning and shooting of the protagonist? To “shoot” a picture becomes the same as to “shoot” a target and the punch clock is our “magazine”. We shoot toward “objet petit a”, are doomed to struggle forward through “repetition”, into “jouissance”. We are even reminded of one of Tehching Hsieh’s early works he made when he was still in Taiwan, Jump. But fantasmatic appearances in the end don’t equal duration. They eventually “miss” each other. Back to Arrest of a stone Buddha, the shooting section and the wandering section complement each other on their remarks of “duration”. They resist each other but also “are” each other. This is why the protagonist only has one slow-walk speed. It’s a fight of being within duration, like Sisyphus.
Everytime you go on a mission you have to first “pull the trigger” as a signal to “notify time itself to start flowing”. If you continue to not pull the trigger, you will keep hearing a noise as if a record is skipping. In the beginning of the game, we are forced to pick a date in November on a calendar unaware of why. The game does not explain. And then the game tells you that we went back to October and the game starts. I almost forgot about it toward the end of the game, until the end hit. Anyone who has seen Le Feu follet knows what this is. It is at this very moment, yeo, as a game developer, cheated, and this might be one of the greatest cheat of all time. When I knew about the secret of the ending I could not hold myself together.
Adrian Heathfield once said that Tehching Hsieh has already prepared himself a retrospective, and after a series of exhibition rooms at the end of the hallway will be an exit. Right by it will be a note which readout the declaration at the end of his Tehching Hsieh 1986–1999(also known as Thirteen Year Plan): “I kept myself alive.”
So why is it “Arrest of a stone Buddha”? In the gunfight section of the game, there is a track called The Dukkha, bitterness. Bodhi is enlightenment, so Buddha is someone who has been enlightened. But it’s not a story about a person who was enlightened and ascended into Buddha, not Tang Sanzang who saw his own corpse but still was able to ferry to the mountain of soul and acquired Tripiṭaka. Because just like Tehching Hsieh’s lifeworks, our protagonist was also “arrested”, seized, by Tehching Hsieh’s “time”, and was given a “life sentence”. This is why, I might go so far as to say that, in this sense, yeo puts it better than Jean-Pierre Melville did.
(1). At the beginning of Le Samouraï and Le Cercle Rouge, Melville started both films with an epigraph, claiming that they respectively came from the Book of Bushido and Buddha himself. The former about there’s nothing more alone than a samurai, except for perhaps a tiger in the jungle; The later about how the Buddha himself once drew a red circle on the ground, explaining how that people will eventually meet each other. Both were actually made up by Melville.
(2). John Woo once wrote two articles, The Melville Style and Honor, Loyalty, and Friendship: John Woo on Le cercle rouge, expressing his admiration of Melville, and how he tried to recreate scenes from Melville’s films in his own films.
【FYI】 I criminally did not mention this in the original article, but in case you're wandering, the original score by danny spider solitaire for this game and the soundtrack as a whole are fire.
About This Article
This article/short essay on the video game Arrest of a stone Buddha was originally published in the 45th issue of Taiwanese hard copy newspaper The Affairs(The Affairs 週刊編集) in April 2021 written in Traditional Chinese. It was later put online by the author Mr. GeckoBiHu(壁虎先生) on his own Blogger and Medium. The original Traditional Chinese title of this article was “煙硝、鬼火與菩提：初探yeo的天才之作《逮捕石佛》”. Me(the author) normally writes in Traditional Chinese. However I find that most of the people who might find this article interesting or useful might not happen to be Traditional Chinese readers and as a matter of fact, not many Traditional Chinese readers actually read it in my estimation, so I’ve been wanting to translate and rework this article to English for some time. It's just recently that I found the time and energy to do it, so here it is.
Arrest of a stone Buddha is such an incredible gem with so many layers of experiences built into it way more than people realized. It’s really something special and brilliantly put together by yeo. But so few people even know about it or appreciate it enough. It might just be one of the most criminally underrated and overlooked games of 2020, waiting to be rediscovered and I figure some analytical materials might help, since long have I came across a new piece of film/game art that's so original, interesting and worth analyzing. I hope this short essay might somewhat scratch some of the rich layers of emotions this game has to offer and perhaps become a helpful push, in spite of being a small one, for this incredible game to find a greater potential audience. Bear in mind that this is only my interpretation of the game though.
About the Author
Mr. GeckoBiHu(also known as “壁虎先生”, MrGeckoPAPA) is a film critic and columnist based in Taiwan. I write in Traditional Chinese and mostly write film reviews, but I'm recently trying to get more video game reviews published because it's so much more interesting and rewarding. If you want to find some of my works and just so happened to be Traditional Chinese readers you can find some of them on Taiwanese publications such as The Affairs(The Affairs週刊編集), opinion.udn(鳴人堂) , Taiwan Documentary E-Paper(紀工報), Funscreen(放映週報), The News Lens(關鍵評論), Film Appreciation Journal (Fa電影欣賞), etc. Or you can just go to my Blogger and Medium. I’ve been trying to group my works there if I'm allowed to, in case any of these publications’ original posts go down or are lost. My primary audiences are on Facebook since that’s where I started, so you can also find me on my Facebook page, under the name MrGeckoPAPA. I will try to keep these three platforms up to dated, but most of the time I'm on Facebook and interact with readers there regularly. However I've also started a twitter account but it's for contacting only. I'm not actively using it for now.
I don’t normally write in English, as I’m not a native English speaker, but this one is special, so here’s my first attempt. If I’m fortunate enough to get your attention and you're actually interested in reading more stuff like this from me you can let me know. I might consider translating more in the future.