Frustratingly, I’ve recently been on a PaRappa The Rapper binge. I say frustratingly because it turns out the game is difficult, awkward, and opaque. Nothing unusual for a nearly 30 year old game nor for what’s widely considered to be the first rhythm game. Doom plays less smoothly than Doom Eternal, but the original has the handicap of defining the genre for its progeny. That doesn’t make me feel better about being, functionally, the unfortunate person trapped in John Searle’s Chinese Room: given a set of instructions for a language I don’t understand, I have to convince the game I’m fluent. Believing my eyes are tricking me into beat deafness, I close my eyes and fail; believing the game has delay issues, I tap early and fail; believing the game is badly made, I hunt for Reddit threads to not feel alone in my bad mood. Still, I binge. For what?
The PaRappa series was short-lived as far as iconic and impactful series go. It encompassed only the first game, the spin-off Um Jammer Lammy, and the direct sequel to the first before falling away due to growing disinterest from its creative head, advances in game technology that outpaced the team, and the negative size of Sony’s profit from the brand. I suspect that even if everyone’s desires lined up the franchise wouldn’t have become Sony’s Mario as PaRappa’s artist, Rodney Greenblat, wanted. Among many reasons why – Sony’s marketing strategy, Mario’s folkloric mutability – I think about what Martin Hagglund writes about self-consciousness in This Life. It’s “the condition for being beholden to others.” PaRappa works as narrative and gameplay because the player, turned into a Turing test, is beholden to it. Coming of age story means becoming consciousness of our connection to others.
In short, the first PaRappa The Rapper is a story about a dog boy trying to impress a flower girl by learning self-defense from an onion, driving from a moose, salesmanship from a frog, and cooking from a chicken, before outrapping PaRappa’s mentors to avoid having an accident on their first date and eventually performing with an MC flea on a stage. The more nuanced (yet no less short) synopsis is laid out by Katherine Isbister in her essay on the game in Well Played 1.0. “The player’s relationship to the mentors moves from one in which the player is very low in power, to one in which the player is really a peer being hosted.” PaRappa goes from the idea of other as risks (self-defense and driving) to the idea of others as audiences (salesmanship and cooking) to overturning these ideas (bathroom) in favor of self-expression (performance). Pursuing puppy love, you become part of the world.
Building worlds through society, self-expression, and love are so much a part of PaRappa’s DNA that his creator, the pop musician-turned-game developer Masaya Matsuura, that it forms the basis for the plot of his game dev debut/band marketing The Seven Colors: Legend of PSY・S CITY. A playthrough of a fan translation of the game is on Youtube (special shoutout to the translator’s blog). On watching it you’ll find a point-and-click adventure game where you travel through an almost entirely abandoned city with eccentric, hectic visuals in search of the titular seven colors to bring “the lovers’ Night” back. Upon finding all seven heart-shaped colors and mailing them to heaven, you are told that “The Power of Love” has been returned to the Earth and all is well now. As night falls and the isometric view ofPSY・S CITY turns and rises, its lights bleed together until they form the word “Love.”
The Seven Colors is a messy game with puzzles ranging from obvious to random, which was the style at the time. Its visuals are bright and interspersed with musical sequences yet you can’t help but notice that you’re wandering a personless city, more likely to be sung at by flowers at forks in the road and spaghetti from an alien planet than talking with a human person. There’s a surreal loneliness to the whole affair. In the foyer of the city’s museum, under eerie didgeridoo-like synth ambience, there’s a poster that when clicked on states that the “establishment” of the city began in early 1992 with “Music King Matsuura, Lyricist Emperor Mori & Picture Saint Mic*itaya…as the Holy Trinity of Expressionism.” They’re self-descriptions that reflect both the playfulness and Ozymandian horror of the game. Of what in this Play-doh wasteland are they kings, emperors, and saints of? Are you, the player, their suppliant?
In an article talking about his complicated love and nostalgia for PaRappa and its “funhouse mirror reflection of American hip-hop culture,” Yussef Cole writes that looking back on it “there’s more performativeness than there ever was authenticity.” This position on the ratio of performativity to authenticity in PaRappa doubles for The Seven Colors. There’s a hollowness at the core the game. The brightness of the game is like the brightness of a Gaugin painting, erasing humanness from the scene. The only moment of social intimacy in the game that’s shown in the Youtube playthrough is a cat sitting down for tea and sardine parfait. They offer a chair but add “what, no chair?” They offer some parfait but add “Oh, you’re not too keen on it , eh?” This rejection plays out in the room of a lounging woman you can find. When you click on her she winks and a pair of sunglasses and a balled fist appear before you and knock you out. A synecdoche for the city with no love.
The two games relationships to performativity puts me in mind of FD Signifier’s video series on Kanye. He points to how wrestlers are performing a character in the “world” of the squared circle, called kayfabe, and uses this as an analogy for hip-hop personas. No doubt what Cole means when saying “blackness…can still feel like a performance” when he considers the “rootlessness” of globalized hip-hop. Expanding on this, between these two Matsuura games, The Seven Colors has the performance of authenticity while PaRappa has the authenticity of performance. This is not only built into the use of a dog for the main character – itself an accident of history but, poetically, a reflection on willingness to follow instructions – but also in the opening cut scene. Instead of meeting the cast, we watch the final scenes of Jet Baby, an in-universe superhero movie. We see the world through the idea of disguise & fantasy. Like FD says in his video, telling a wrestling fan wrestling’s not real is like “telling people The Avengers isn’t real. We know.”
None of this is to argue with Cole’s experience. PaRappa is not made by Black creators nor with Black people in mind. Japan, as Cole notes at the top of his article, still flagrantly appropriates cultures for their aesthetics. That a 1998 NYTimes article approvingly compared PaRappa to “tough guys” like Wu-Tang Clan who “are so exaggerated that people laugh at them” instead managing to be “hip by not being cool” signifies as much. That the article describes it as “a kind of universal suburbia that Japanese children recognize from countless American sitcoms,” and Rodney Greenblat is quoted as describing the aesthetic as a “hyperbole of picket-fence Americana” signifies as much. It’s the mythical American life (always coded white) filtered through Japanese pop art; an ancestor of Macklemore winning over Kendrick at the 2014 Grammys. All that’s to say that knowing PaRappa is performing itself is both what makes it both conceptually interesting and culturally aged.
Coming back to my binge, the two questions I kept asking myself as I repeated Cheap Cheap the Cooking Chicken’s level were: Why am I losing? Is it the game being old? While certainly coping, my coping centers around the central design structure of the game. PaRappa is a black box. Most players have no idea how scoring works and, based on the top comment on this post, knowing won’t help. It can be frustrating, this seeming lack of direction, even as the mentors tell you what to do. But I think of what Ryu Watabe, lyricist and VA for Chop Chop Master Onion, said in a 1996 developer interview. “Hip hop is all about freedom. There aren’t any rules and restrictions.” While there definitely are rules and restrictions in a game (it’s perhaps the fundamental feature of a game), this push to fail and develop is freedom. A game you can’t fail is a loading bar. Failure is what reminds us we are, in fact, trying. We improv to improve. In trying, we perform ourselves as strange to ourselves.
It’s this intersection of performing oneself and, through that, the inherit imperfection of performing self, that saturates my experience of the game. It’s easy, in short, to get hooked on cooking Cheap Cheap’s sardine cake (sadly not a parfait) because failure signifies the empty space you can play around in. That empty space of play is one where you can discover yourself through experiment, maybe mixing up flows until one fits, maybe mashing until you give up, maybe testing to the limits of the rules themselves, maybe following them exactly and getting as far as you’re able. That empty space of play is a utopia, and in utopia there is no game over until the game’s off – the game over screen in PaRappa commands you to “TRY AGAIN!!!” Method Man said it best in a Complex TikTok when asked who he thought was the best rapper alive right now. “He hasn’t been born yet.”
This is why, I think, the throughline between PaRappa and Lammy is the phrase “I gotta believe.” It’s a phrase expressing doubt (I didn’t believe but I have to), command (I tell myself to believe), and uncertainty (I don’t have to know, just believe). It’s a fairly standard self-supporting phrase that is also a commitment to oneself, seeing oneself as inhabiting an empty space of play, as able to fail and be held accountable for failure and TRY AGAIN!!! In This Life, Martin Hagglund, reading Marx’s letter to Arnold Ruge as his version of MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech, writes “the key to waking up…is the form of self-consciousness: the recognition that it is our dream and that we have to make it our own through our practical activity. Making the dream come true is a matter of our work.” As in the PaRappa games where not only do the characters struggle through learning from mentors, but we as players have to struggle through failure after frustrating failure.
The opening level of Um Jammer Lammy says it all. Lammy is dreaming that she’s late to a performance with her band Milk Can and has to be guided through the performance by Chop Chop Master Onion. His lyrics predict the events of the game. Canonically this suggests either oracular powers or near-manifesting levels of stupidly bad luck. As the performance comes to an end, Master Onion confirms to Lammy that she’s been strumming a vacuum. The only stage that doesn’t get mentioned in the lyrics is, in fact, the very one she dreamed she was performing. And, if you beat it, performing well. After waking up, she realizes she is in fact almost late to her show and so the events of the game unfold exactly as predicted. A fire, a nursery, a plane, a wood workshop, Hell (in the Japanese version). But what’s noticeable absent is the final stage, the show itself, except as the unreal version that is the dream itself and implicitly in the final call-and-response line “you come far.”
So what? Well, I suppose fulfilling the dream requires waking up from it. You don’t sleepwalk away from Omelas. The risk of that empty space of hidden rules made to be broken, of aching through the emptiness by actual doing beside others, the command to play and fail (which isn’t the opposite of play but the ground on which play is built) are the core experience of a dog boy and a lamb girl trying to impress a flower girl for the former and not disappoint her band mates for the latter. These are game worlds thriving with life. Not because they’re the implication of business that is a city, but because the characters are committed to one another; they’re lively because the gameplay itself is built around the idea of engaging with others as more than Chinese Rooms. You have to wake up and realize that this is not a dream. You are beholden to others because, in this 2D world, we bend 3D.