Archive for the philosophy Category

Whedon Need No Stinking Branded Entertainment

Posted in comics, criticism, literature, movies, philosophy with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2015 by drayfish


IMAGE: Avengers: Age of Ultron (Disney/Marvel)

Don’t you hate product integration?

You know, when you’re watching a film and it becomes painfully clear that some company or piece of merchandise has been shamelessly shoehorned into the scene. Like when Spiderman uses every object ever stamped with the Sony name in both his private and crime fighting life. Or when a character (maybe in a teen horror film), searches for information online (perhaps for the dark history of werewolves), and decides to inexplicably ignore the existence of Google, bouncing instead straight over to their to Microsoft PC to load their Microsoft Internet Explorer program and type ‘Werewolf’ into Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

Also, later in the film that werewolf will be using a Zune.

It’s just cheap and tacky, and always so blatantly obvious that it ends up insulting its viewer, who is suddenly ripped out of the film/television show to realise, in a disorienting rupture of the fourth wall, that what they are watching is an insidious, corrosive ad. A narrative experience compromised (or at least uncomfortably massaged) by the need to shill for more cash.

Anyway. Apropos of nothing, I went to the movies the other day to watch Avengers: Age of Ultron.

[WARNING: Mild, mild spoilers for the first five minutes of Age of Ultron to follow]

I was (as most of the world seemed to be) a big fan of the first one. Writer/Director Joss Whedon had danced a merry, impossible jig: wrangling multiple, franchise-carrying stars; blending wholly disparate genres (Iron Man’s playful action snark, Hulk’s body horror, Thor’s Shakespearian Sci-Fi, Captain America’s unapologetically hokey heroism); he gave the world a proper Black Widow (seriously: where is her solo movie, Marvel?!); and he wrapped it all up in a smart, snappy, romping spectacle that insulted neither the film’s audience nor its material. He validated the universe building of the Marvel movie franchise – something so audacious and unprecedented that I find it somewhat extraordinary how infrequently it gets mentioned.

An interconnected web of big budget franchises shouldn’t, on any rational level, be possible – but Avengers defiantly, proudly proved it could be.

So obviously I was keen to see the next one – the next major tent pole in the Marvel bid for world domination film franchise, written and directed by Joss Whedon while he sits on his surprise announcement of Serenity 2 (DON’T TREAD ON MY DREAMS!)

The cinema lights went down, I weathered the previews dancing at me like I owed them something, and the film began. And straight away, there it was: the party from the first film still raging. No, ‘We have to regather the team to face the encroaching blah blah blah…’ Just, ‘Everyone, keep doing that thing you’re doing…’ And it was great. Perhaps a little jarring straight out of the gates, but that’s clearly the point. I’d joined them mid-climax. A cohesive team. Game ready.

Avengers gif

IMAGE: Avengers: Age of Ultron (Disney/Marvel)

I watched happily, already lost in the deceptively effortless interplay of the characters. Saw them carve through a soviet base full of cartoonish bad guys and crack wise. Saw that same frenetic ballet of ‘splosions and bons mots. And then, in the middle of the fray, Tony Stark – Iron Man sans the suit – was creeping around a lab, looking at a giant behemoth hanging from the ceiling. When suddenly the creature roared awake, tore through the roof, and shredded everything in its path of destruction!

And oh, no…

There they lay, all of the Avengers, dead and dying. Stark looking down as they each eased out their last breath, the broken detritus of a dream for colourful heroism scattered.  Defeated.

No doubt it was just a dream. That woman who looked like the Olsen twins seemed to have worked some dark magics on Stark before he freaked out (one might even say she was a Witch, some sort of scarlet-hued witch), so he was probably just having a twisted prophetic vision.  But still, all appeared to be lost…

And then the whole cinema switched off.

The projector died, the sound dissolved, and the lights reduced to a lone emergency globe, a feeble gleaming above the exit.

Controversial choice, I thought. Make a film that runs only ten minutes. Don’t have the villain show up at all. Brutally kill off all of the titular Avengers. And most egregious of all: there was no after credits scene. …There weren’t even any credits!

Joss Whedon seemed to be making some bold choices in this, his final Marvel franchise film. No wonder critics have been childishly snitty and whining about this sequel. No wonder ‘fans’ have been throwing heat at the movie online.

Eventually we were told by a weary cinema attendant that the power to the building had gone out, and that they weren’t sure when, or if the movie was going to be able to continue.

Wow, I thought, this Scarlet Witch hallucination is really elaborate. Joss Whedon has gone super meta this time.

Turns out there really was a power outage. The whole complex was down and I would have to return another day to see what would come of this dire hallucination, to know what carnage was wrought from Tony Stark’s existential dread. But as I sat in that darkened space, the narrative stalled so unceremoniously in a state of murky, unresolved anticipation, I suddenly wished that I had something to read – something to help pass the time that might offer me insight into Joss Whedon’s oeuvre, and his numerous experimentations with genre and form.

And it was then that I remembered the new publication from Titan Books, The Joss Whedon Companion (Revised & Updated Edn). Oh, how I wished I had a copy of such a fine collection to while away the hours, waxing lyrical on Whedon’s many triumphs.*

‘But, aren’t you published in that book?’ said a voice in my head. I think his name was Shame. ‘Yeah, haven’t you got an article on Cabin In The Woods published in that? …So isn’t this all just a brazen, insulting, misleading plug for your own work?’

Shut up, you! I said to myself, and sat twisting in self-loathing in the darkness.

Product placement, I thought. What an insidious, underhanded practice it is.

And then I went out and bought all of the Stark Industry products I could find.

It just seemed the right thing to do.

So, anyone want to buy a War Machine suit, slightly used?

Joss Whedon Fully Revised Cover

IMAGE: The Joss Whedon Companion (Titan Books)

* Isn’t it funny how people confuse the phrase ‘while away’ with ‘wile away’? The correct usage means to fill up time, to spend a ‘while’; the other means to be cunning or sneaky, to use your ‘wiles’ to disarm or dissemble. Don’t know what made me think of that. ALL THE COOL PEOPLE READ BOOKS!

‘In the Vault’: Seinfeld and the Language Game of ‘Nothing’

Posted in criticism, literature, philosophy, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2013 by drayfish


IMAGE: Seinfeld (Castle Rock Entertainment; NBC)

I have been sinking back into some older television of late – classic Simpsons (to ameliorate the collective scar tissue of the last decade of that seemingly un-killable show), Law and Order (McCoy!  I love you, McCoy!), and Larry Sanders (how exactly can Jeffrey Tambor play despicable, pathetic and adorable at the same time?!  …What, is he, a witch?)  But the show that has leapt out at me most profoundly, that I have been able to view on a whole new level in this welcome return, is Seinfeld.

Widely considered to be the greatest sitcom ever made, Seinfeld has spawned a parade of imitators that have sought (and frequently failed) to emulate its deceptively simple chemical composition.  Following on from Seinfeld’s template, but injecting a little more saccharine romance, Friends similarly concerned itself with the lives of young adults surviving New York in a state of arrested development; and it likewise revolved around a group that meets to yammer about their day at the local coffee shop, frequently getting distracted by the particulars of dating and relationships.  Shows like How I Met Your Mother have drawn inspiration from Seinfeld’s playful vocabulary, trying to engineer terminology like ‘suit up’ and the dating ‘Lemon Law’ and the many governing strictures of ‘The Bro Code’.  Always Sunny in Philadelphia has proudly declared itself ‘Seinfeld on crack’, steering characters already skewed toward selfishness straight into the abyss of a destructive, deluded chaos.

But to me, Seinfeld at its best has always worked under a wholly different dynamic than the rote summaries people sometimes use to encapsulate it would suggest.  It rather operates at a level of discourse and play articulated best in the discussions of the language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was …okay, to be honest, not such a funny guy.

The cliché is to describe Seinfeld as a show about nothing.  Indeed, it is a description that the show itself mischievously encouraged in its fourth season, when George and Jerry conceive of the sitcom pilot Jerry (a show-within-a-show that, ironically, came to be geared around by a zany sitcom plot about a court-ordered butler).  They refer to their invented program, itself inspired by their ‘real’ life in the fiction of the sitcom, literally, as, ‘A show about nothing’; as George explains to the baffled NBC executives:

‘But nothing happens on the show.  You see, it’s just like life.  You know, you eat, you go shopping, you read, you eat, you read, you go shopping…’

Often considered ‘anti-television’, Seinfeld seemed to subvert all the sitcom conventions of character and narrative.  Revolving around four rather narcissistic people, figures locked together in a strange interdependence that would, according to show creator Larry David, contain ‘no hugging’ and ‘no learning’, it observed the moments in-between the usual sitcom ‘moments’.  In Seinfeld, no one’s boss was coming over to dinner; no one delivered a baby in an elevator; no one had a zany wedding, and needed to be talked out of their cold feet with a syrupy ‘awwwww…’ from the audience.  (Indeed, one gets the sense that had the audience said ‘awwwww…‘ to anything that was depicted on that soundstage David would have had them forcibly removed from the studio and hurled into a ditch.*)

Instead, its episodes frequently revolved around scenarios in which (at least superficially), the plot appeared to be happening elsewhere, and this quartet are left distracted by the little stuff: waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant; trying to find a lost car in a garage; taking a subway ride; bickering over the size of a salad; trying to get the hell out of Florida while arguing about a gift pen; trying to make it to a dinner party with a marble rye.  It was the show that concentrated on the ‘nothing’ going on behind the conventional television ‘somethings’ that had grown tediously stale.

But while ‘nothing’ is a snappy summation – one that hints at the inimitable tone of its plots – it belies the genius of the real subject matter into which the show delved: the connective tissue at the heart of every episode.  Because in actuality, the whole of Seinfeld , and the wellspring from which it draws its masterful comic sensibility, is about grammar – about testing the application of language amongst a circle of like-minded language users.  George, Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer each play out the normative social influence of behavioural and ideological concepts.  They test words and play out their meanings.  They perform, in a very real sense, comical versions of the language-games proposed by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein, a philosopher concerned throughout his life with the way in which language functioned, came to see human communication as an endlessly expanding, continuously fluctuating organism governed by use – by grammar.  In his second major work, Philosophical Investigations, he described language like a city, constantly expanding, being built upon, renovated and remade:

‘Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.’**

Whenever new terminologies are introduced (scientific and medical terms, new forms of technology, slang and definitions) our language – like a city – grows and adapts to make room for these words, and their new applications.  But we have to know these terms and their meaning; see them applied, to learn the grammar of their usage.

Otherwise, as Wittgenstein notes, we are so alienated from this grammar that we will fail to understand what is being said.  As he observes later in the book in one of his most famous statements:

‘If I lion could talk, we could not understand him.’***

What Wittgenstein is essentially saying here – using the example of a beast given the power of speech – is that language requires more than just knowing the definitions of a list of words.  It’s about being attuned to their context, to the subtleties of their use.  In the case of the lion – magically granted the power of human speech or not – his grammar, his frames of reference (or in Wittgenstein’s terms, his ‘forms of life’), would nonetheless remain so alien, so divorced from our own experience, that we would still be unable to comprehend one another anyway.

It would, on a much smaller scale, be like getting dropped into the middle of a Seinfeld episode, suddenly witness, with no establishing perspective, to a bunch of people jabbering about ‘Mimbos’, ‘shrinkage’ and being ‘anti-dentite.’  Without the necessary back story, we would, like the lion, suddenly have no idea what these words meant – recognising their sounds, but oblivious to their unnatural applications, seemingly locked behind an abstracted code.

Wittgenstein therefore came to argue that the only means to explore the way in which language makes meaning was to examine its grammar – to look at how language is being applied at the very moment of its use, in localised examinations of speech that he called ‘language-games’.  One such example of these games was an examination of various uses of the word ‘blue’.  After all, the word ‘blue’ could be an adjective, a noun; it could be one of (or all of) a series of colours; even a state of mind:

‘Is this blue the same as the blue over there?   Do you see any difference?’–

You are mixing paint and you say ‘It’s hard to get the blue out of this sky.’

‘It’s turning fine, you can already see blue sky again.’

‘Look at what different effects these two blues have.’

‘Do you see the blue book over there?  Bring it here.’

‘This blue signal-light means . . . .’

‘What’s this blue called? – Is it “indigo”?’****

‘Blue’, Wittgenstein reveals, is not simply a label applied to a physical or conceptual object.  It can have a myriad of meanings in a multitude of circumstances, all defined by its grammar and discerned by language-users familiar with these uses effortlessly in the moment of its utterance.

And it is precisely these kinds of explorations of language that are undertaken in every episode of Seinfeld, as each week we watch these characters explore – through the myriad potential for meaning that they can engender in their discussions – their own linguistic suburb in the city of language.

Indeed, it helps explain why the show has created such a wide and ubiquitous lexicon.  From ‘Yadda-yadda-yadda’, to putting something ‘in the vault’, to ‘re-gifting’, to ‘close-talkers’, ‘high-talkers’, and ‘low-talkers’, Seinfeld has arguably contributed more definitions and turns of phrase to the English language than anyone since Shakespeare.

And the reason that these definitions catch on – when other programs that try to mimic this style fail – is because Seinfeld scripts do not simply label some social phenomenon and expect the viewer to look on with a distanced, wry smile – they play it out, exhibit how applicable it is for its given circumstance.  The show’s stories build their momentum by rolling around a premise and allowing its validity or otherwise be tested through application.  The characters tease out its possibilities, with the viewer themself drawn into this conceptual exploration, invited to participate in the interrogation of social norms and pondering the foibles of human behaviour.

When is it appropriate to pee?  Only in the bathroom, or in the shower of the YMCA?  (And indeed, do pipes all go to the same places?)  Can ‘You are sooooooo good-looking’ be used in lieu of ‘God bless you’ when someone sneezes?  Exactly how far does one have to penetrate the nostril before a scratch becomes a pick?  Are you in a ‘relationship’ if you have an implied date, daily phone calls, and there is Tampax in your house?  What are the rules of ‘double-dipping a chip’?

And on the wider scale – comically evoking the contextual conflict in Wittgenstein’s lion example – we can witness the way in which the rules of one group of language-users rub up against with the rules of another, resulting in a case of ‘Worlds Collide’.  When George is dating Susan, and she seemingly befriends the group without him, ‘Independent George’ suddenly threatens to be subsumed by the social expectations of ‘Relationship George’:

‘You have no idea of the magnitude of this thing.  If she is allowed to infiltrate this world, then George Costanza as you know him ceases to exist.  You see, right now I have “Relationship George”.  But there is also “Independent George”.  That’s the George you know.  The George you grew up with.  Movie George.  Coffee shop George.  Liar George.  Bawdy George.  …. And he’s dying Jerry!  If “Relationship George” walks through this door he will kill “Independent George”.  A George divided against itself cannot stand!’

Indeed, it is when Susan starts using the language of ‘Independent George’ – declaring that she will put something in ‘The Vault’ – that George specifically begins to see the walls between his behavioural selves crumbling.*****

Perhaps the best example of this kind of language-game play, however, comes in the episode ‘The Alternate Side’, in which Kramer gets a bit role in the project of another loquacious New Yorker, Woody Allen.  Having impressed the filmmaker with an act of unintentional slapstick, Kramer is offered a tiny speaking part (literally elevated from extraneous onlooker to language-user), and is asked to deliver the line,

‘These pretzels are making me thirsty.’

When Kramer returns to Jerry’s apartment to relay this news, he shares with the others the line he is tasked with delivering.  George, Jerry and Elaine each offer suggestions on how best to convey the phrase’s meaning.  Elaine screws up her face, smacking her lips as though trying to banish the salt from her palate, seemingly surprised to discover, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty…’  Jerry meanwhile, dismissing her effort, declares, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty,’ over-earnestly slicing the air with his hand.  George, offering an overwrought interpretation, bores a hole in the table with his stare as he burbles, ‘These pretzels… are making me thirsty!‘ in a tone of barely contained rising-crisis.  Kramer is unsatisfied with them all, and although vowing to work on the line further, to continue trying to find its most suitable inflection, seems resolved to embrace his own vaudevillian delivery, all but winking into the camera as he grins, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty!’

No consensus is reached, and each character goes their own way, each chasing down their individual plotlines.  However, at the end of every one of these excursions, George, Jerry, Elaine and Kramer return to the line, this time investing it with genuine and contextual meaning.  Kramer continues to roll the line around in his mind, mystified that he cannot seem to invest the statement with feeling: ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty?’  George, unhinged by the stress of failing to repark an increasingly complex Tetris game of cars, screams the line as a displaced non sequitur out of the apartment window, ‘THESE PRETZELS ARE MAKING ME THIRSTY!’  Elaine, choked with discomfort at trying to break up with her boyfriend – who has just suffered an incapacitating medical scare – squirms, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty…’ through awkward laughter.  And Jerry, seething with contempt at a rental car employee who has just informed him he will be responsible for paying the damages, despite his having bought the insurance, spits, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty!‘  Just as Wittgenstein displayed in his examples of the word ‘blue’, in each of these instances, the phrase takes on dramatically new and singular meaning dependent upon the context of its use.

When George and Jerry conceive of the premise for their show-within-a-show – the mise en abyme that reflects upon the fiction’s larger structure – their description of ‘Nothing’, and a ‘show about nothing’, is not meant to indicate that it will be boring, about depicting emptiness, or the negation of purpose; instead it is about minutiae, about the ineffable strings of usage that govern behaviour, that dictate meaning, and that consequentially allow us to function as a community.  As George would elsewhere poignantly shout:

We’re living in a community here!

And so, for a show that purports to be about ‘nothing’, the show reveals itself to concern the most profound and central ‘something’ of all.  Seinfeld, in celebrating the seeming ‘nothingness’ that binds all verbal communication, exposes the centrality of linguistic communion – of the ineffable ties that define all human speech, and the shared experience that invests these applications with meaning.  As Wittgenstein would say, it’s about language-games: who knows them; how they are being employed.

The genius of the Seinfeld program is that each week we get to watch these concepts, these definitions, play out, watch them effortlessly, organically stirred into usage.  Each episode is a language-game, teasing out the implications of these descriptors, validating or disproving their acceptance into the communal parlance.  In Seinfeld we are drawn into that circle.  Made an unseen occupant of that diner booth.  We know the context.  We’ve seen the usage.

We get it.

 seinfeld at monks

IMAGE: Seinfeld (Castle Rock Entertainment; NBC)

* According to his own account on the Seinfeld DVDs, he even despised, and actively discouraged the audience from applauding when Kramer slid into scene.

** Philosophical Investigations #18.

*** Philosophical Investigations, II xi, p.223.

**** Philosophical Investigations #33.

***** And this play with grammar is even true in its last two, far broader (and arguably less satisfying) seasons after Larry David had left as show-runner.  Although the series had turned into something of a weekly comic cryptic crossword – with three or four seemingly disparate narratives that would somehow interweave by the endpoint – the comedy nonetheless came from knowing just how disconnected those through lines were before they were given new agency in the context of the show’s resolution.  Kramer meaninglessly wandering around with a meat slicer suddenly became crucial to Elaine when she had to feed a dog through the crack under a locked door.

LIMBO and LOST: One is a dark, dreary, ominous excursion into a nihilistic nothingness …the other is LIMBO.

Posted in criticism, literature, philosophy, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2012 by drayfish

or: Wherever You Are, There You Are (Even If You’re Nowhere)


An eye opens.  A pair of eyes in fact.  Two eyes; both opening.  Two orbs waiting to perceive, to absorb their strange new surrounds, and in that act of viewing, to come to know themselves.

The owner of those eyes, our protagonist, staggers slowly to his feet.  An unfamiliar landscape suddenly meets his gaze.  He is bewildered.  This alien environment is unsettling, foreboding; strange sounds filter in from beyond the trees, and a portentous, thunderous music punctuates the air.  Our solitary hero has no recollection of the events that flung him into this anachronistic land, and over the course of his adventures he will confront dangerous, shadowy ‘others’, predatory animals and otherworldly beasts, even convoluted machines that change the very fabric of space, time, and influence the elemental forces themselves.  He will find himself in world that seems to defy all logic or expectation, and over the course of his attempts to free himself and return to the familiar, he will seek to comprehend the nature of his circumstance, and in doing so perhaps better know himself.

This premise (indeed, this exact introduction) is the set up for two very distinct, yet thematically analogous works: one a videogame, LIMBO; the other a multimillion dollar television epic, LOST.  In the first a young boy, in haunting silhouette, moves across a shadowy two-dimensional plane solving a series of perilous puzzles in order to progress; in the second a character named Jack awakens on a mysterious island after a plane crash, soon finds himself the leader of a makeshift band of survivors, and likewise fights to survive in an environment that appears to defy all conventional reason.

Both texts invite their audiences to invest in their respective journeys into the inexplicable: LOST asks its audience to keep watching, promising that eventually all of its seemingly random narrative threads will link together into a cohesive whole; LIMBO meanwhile is propelled by the possibility that, perhaps, by continuing through its stages, the player will eventually be able to conceive of where exactly this small boy is located, what this nebulous ‘limbo’ state actually is.  And yet ultimately both texts knowingly thwart this desire for resolution, disabusing their audience of the hope that any of these mysteries will ever resolve into meaning.

For the six seasons that it ran (2004-10), LOST proved itself to be a recursive Russian Doll of ambiguity.  As the showcontinued from week-to-week viewers were left to hunt for clues to make sense of the narrative’s overarching mythology, sifting through a pastiche of sci-fi, horror, mystery, philosophical and spiritualist tropes for evidence from which they might glean answers to the riddle of what was actually going on in the tale.  Smoke monsters; electromagnetic Rube Goldberg machines; Egyptian hieroglyphs; ubiquitous recurring number chains; time travel; mysterious caverns with magical properties; every new puzzle piece seemed to tempt revelation, and yet each led only to more obscurity and confusion.  Indeed, often it seemed that the writers were just free-associating imagery (something that appears to have been true for the first three seasons at least, as show-runner and writer Damon Lindelof has since indicated in an interview with The Verge*).

Eventually, the viewer is compelled to realise that all hope of ultimate explanation is fraught with disappointment.  Just as the central characters find their questioning met with only more queries, so too does the audience find that every avenue of reasoning fails to offer absolutes to the experience of this island.  Instead we repeatedly watch as characters flushed with surety that they can penetrate the meaning of the island are stripped of their hubris and forced to realise that they too are but unknowing cogs in a larger, incomprehensible metaphysical machine.  The physicist Daniel Faraday who claims that the answers lie in science; industrialist Charles Widmore who believes the island can be possessed and exploited for profit; John Locke who experiences a transformative epiphany and comes to see the island as a spiritual oasis; the calculating Ben Linus, political leader of the Others, who, using his mastery of behavioural manipulation schemes his way into power; each figure represents one of numerous diverse fields of human endeavour, each purporting to know the answers to the island, all of whom fail profoundly, robbed of their misapprehensions, and often killed for their presumption.  Even the immortal figures like Richard Alpert and Jacob, who appear to themselves be products of these irrational elements, are themselves exposed to be little more than victims of circumstance.

Life is mystery, the work wants to suggest, and the grand metaphysical questions of what motivates us all cannot ever satisfactorily be answered, locked as we are behind our subjective vision and singular beliefs.  Indeed, the structure of the program itself embraces this notion of an individual’s fundamentally limited perspective: each episode is bound to a loose first-person viewpoint as we watch events unfold from one character’s angle, even dipping back into personal history that seems comparable to their current circumstance.  And in every instance, though they may yearn for comprehension, they consistently fail to see their place in the larger unfolding of events.

Curiously (for a narrative that fuels itself utterly with mystery), the final message of the show seems to be that no one can ever know all the answers, can ever escape their bewildered ignorance.  There is no key that will unlock meaning, and the pursuit of such answers are merely breadcrumbs leading us down several forking paths of aberrant misinformation, hubristic confusions, and mystic irresolvable vagary.  Instead of celebrating the pursuit of ultimately unattainable truth, the narrative instead acts as a cautionary tale: life is mysterious, so don’t try to figure it out or you’ll just go nuts, be slaughtered, abandoned, or get attacked by a polar bear.

And so the endpoint (as much as there is one) comes as our central character descends into a cave to move a gigantic plug in a pool of illuminated water (…honestly, I haven’t a clue).  Somehow he restores order, and eventually is mortally wounded, left unknowingly wandering, bleeding, back to the exact spot in which his journey began.  Jack slumps to the ground, prostrate, his consciousness fading to rest in the same position in which his adventure on this island, long ago, began.  He becomes the last in a long line of believers succumbing to death, his eyes now closing, his wandering fugue state now at an end.

The game LIMBO likewise ends where it started: the character lying back on the same patch of grass, his eyes sliding shut as a seeming death overwhelms him.  The journey to this point has similarly been fraught with peril, laced with conundrums and complexities that must be overcome.  Antigravity machines that require precision and poise to utilise; spidery beasts that must be outpaced or outwitted; mind-controlling bugs; vicious children with elaborate snares; electricity; cavernous drops; decaying suburban ruins; having seen his way through them all, the nameless boy undertakes the final puzzle, and in the course of its solution is propelled, weightless, through a glass pane (much like the monitor/screen through which we are viewing his journey), time slowing as his body flips gracefully through the glistening shards, tumbling to rest in precisely the same position that the game began.  Just as in LOST, we struggle onward in LIMBO invited to believe that the truth of where we are and what’s going on might at last be revealed, only to realise in the end that we are literally right back where we started…

But then something masterful happens: the boy wakes back up.

In LIMBO death has not been the end: the boy rises again and sets out once more upon his ceaseless quest.  Although nothing substantive in the narrative has been addressed – indeed, we have been left in no doubt that this is a literal state of limbo – our whole perception of his journey, and its meaning, is fundamentally altered.

Here the revelation of the endpoint invites us to embrace the indeterminate state within which we too have existed for a time.  Rather than watch a quest for meaning flicker and die we realise that there is no escape from this pattern of repetition and action; we end up right back where we began, having now realised that it was in the doing of things that our actions most mattered.  There was no magic endpoint, no final resolve, just action: what you did and how you did it.  We are instead invited to lose ourselves in the accomplishment of the game itself; like the unnamed, faceless protagonist, compelled to appreciate our place in this loop of programming and gameplay, we too are ensnared in the unceasing repetition of a platforming purgatory.

In its absence of narrative conclusion LIMBO therefore celebrates the momentary, embracing the ephemeral nature of agency.  We are presented with the definition of a Sisyphean task, not tasked with rolling a rock up a hill for eternity, but locked in a similarly experiential web without end.  And just as Camus described in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, we, like the absurd hero, must struggle on, perpetually rolling the rock up the hill, knowing that there will be no end to his labour, because by embracing this inevitability, by welcoming the truth of it, we claim ownership of the task, folding the noble absurdity of our circumstance back into ourselves.

If we are not blindly struggling for an imagined metaphysical enlightenment we become masters of our own action, empowered by the knowledge that it is our actions that define our identity, our morality, ourselves.  Thus, when we play through the game again, the ease, the grace with which each dilemma is confronted and conquered delights us with the thrill of a task embraced and elegantly resolved.

Both texts, LIMBO and LOST, seem to embrace the structure of a dream.  Both begin and conclude with the actions of fading or waking from sleep, a sleep that is emblematic of death; indeed, both texts seem to articulate the Shakespearean adage that ‘Our little lives are rounded with a sleep.’   The line is taken from his extraordinary play The Tempest, a narrative itself concerned with a mysterious, magical island, removed from the real world.*  More specifically the line comes from a scene in which Shakespeare, in a wonderfully self-reflexive acknowledgement of his own practice, is directly advocating the capacity for plays to express the profound truths of human experience.

In the scene, the all-powerful Prospero has been presenting a masque for the entertainment of his daughter and her prospective lover Ferdinand (it’s also a none-too-subtle warning not to get up to any pre-marital nookie).  As he scatters the performers to the wind, mid-performance, he offers a speech about the nature of art, likewise dissipating all the traditional delineations between fiction and lived experience, pretence and reality, dream and the waking world:

                                              These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And, like the baseless fabric of vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with sleep. (Act 4, Sc 1, lines 148-58)

I showed you merely a vision, he says, but this vision speaks to our own experience of existence.  We too are merely the stuff of dreams, beginning and ending in an immortal sleep – our brief span on Earth but the flicker of a transitory illumination, soon reclaimed by the dark.  His exquisite, meta-textual play – folding our mortal existence, our fantasies, his own theatrical history altogether – celebrates humanity’s capacity for self-expression and imagination, a means of capturing, even in fragment, the exquisite vibrancy and expressive potential of exploratory play.  (He also throws in a magnificent reference to the ‘Globe’ – a literalised world of potential that shimmers with imagination – that I have to believe was an acknowledgement of his own Globe Theatre.)

For Prospero, as for Shakespeare, the fantastical dream of the theatre was an artful enactment of the most fundamental defining attribute of human experience: our brief, grasping efforts to define our own existence before fading to the transom of death.  In their respective articulations of this same vision in television and videogame, LOST and LIMBO too both seek to articulate the span of all human life, and our efforts to comprehend ourselves.  Both texts therefore operate as an elaborate form of imagistic ouroboros: the ending immediately reinitiating the beginning, returning us to point of deathly status quo.

In LOST this moment presents a conclusion: the eyes close rather than open.  Jack is warmed by the sight of the plane full of his friends rising from the island, presumably to a newfound freedom far from the island’s strange purgatory.  But this seemingly conclusive image merely reinstates the arbitrary nature of the journey that has been undertaken.  Jack is back where he began, and despite the text’s allusions to an awakening knowledge, or a peace that transcends reason, he has learned nothing of his place in the universe.  He has fought for what he believed was right and given all that he could, but is no wiser, and has watched people die arbitrarily at his command, sacrificing themselves for his leadership in wholly unjustified ways; and by extension, we the audience have learned that only frustration, disappointment and death await those who bother to pursue the most fundamental human desires to understand our place in the universe.

In LIMBO one is likewise right back where they started, but the world they now view is utterly reborn.  By embracing the absurdity of our circumstance, the unknowability of the grand metaphysical truths, we can instead refocus upon the present, and our engagement with ourselves and others.  In our exploration of the dream we come to see the value in our every movement and interaction.  Gameplay becomes the expression of selfhood, and we illuminate ourselves, validating our own worth to the uncaring void.

And so, as all three texts conclude, The Tempest, LOST and LIMBO,the lights dim and we are left to ponder our own place amongst the fantasy.  The pair of eyes shut.  The dream is over.  And we have learned all or nothing as the darkness seeps over us all.

IMAGE: LIMBO (Playdead) 


** LOST even makes a number of thematic and explicit references to the play: the character of Ben, who appears to be in control of the island like Prospero, has a (adopted) daughter whose romance becomes central to her story, much like Miranda; characters vie for control of the island much as the shipwrecked stewards of the King did; each of the characters brings with them baggage from their previous lives that must be resolved in their time upon the island; and one of Dharma stations on the island is even called ‘The Tempest’.

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