Exits in Video Games: Immanence and Transcendence (Calum Rodger)
In this essay, Calum Rodger explores the poetics of exits and transcendence in video games, via the vectored planes of ‘Victorian-thought-experiments-turned-quirky-novella’ Flatland. Read on for reflections on the secret ecstasies and eeriness that accompany discoveries of glitches, nonsensical infrastructures and metatextual moments in the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog, Monkey Island and, of course, the virtual sublime of that San Andrean Heaven.
> Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions is the weirdest little book. Published in 1884, written by schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott, and pseudonymously attributed to ‘A Square’, it describes a strange and awful world of only two dimensions. Its inhabitants – lines, triangles, squares and polygons – are organised according to a totalitarian caste system wherein rank corresponds to the number of one’s sides (nobility are hexagons and above; priests, the highest class, are circles; women, the lowest, are lines). Not that these shapes are conventionally perceived as such by Flatland’s residents: with no way of stepping outside their flat plane of existence, their world appears to them as a series of monotone straight lines in various shades of brightness (colour – the ‘chromatic sedition’ - is brutally suppressed, compromising as it does the ‘intellectual Arts’ of Flatland and, with it, the nobles’ hold on power). ‘Irregularities’ of all kinds - ‘an infant whose angle deviates by half a degree from the correct angularity’, say – are summarily destroyed at birth. Not only must Flatland be an awful place to live; it must also be interminably dull
> The book is remarkable for the head-spinning extent to which it imagines how a world might be liveable in such dimensionally-limited conditions. It is a necessarily dystopian world: how can one conceive of liberty in a world literally without depth? Flatland is totalitarian by its very form, lacking a structure from which liberty might emerge; there is, in other words, no exit. Only after the narrator’s encounter with a ‘Stranger’ - a ‘Sphere’ from ‘Spaceland’ - does real exit become possible, as the visitor enlightens his incredulous host:
What you call Solid things are really superficial; what you call Space is really nothing but a great Plane. I am in Space, and look down upon the insides of the things of which you only see the outsides. You could leave the Plane yourself, if you could but summon up the necessary volition. A slight upward or downward motion would enable you to see all that I can see.
Unlike conventional dystopias, where the potential of exit is immanent to the system itself (in the irrepressible human parts: love, desire, freewill, etc.), exit from Flatland is transcendent in the genuinely metaphysical sense: a ‘climbing over’ (cf. immanent, ‘remaining within’) one’s dimensional limits, a ‘slight upward or downward motion’ beyond not merely the plausible, but the possible.
> There is an obvious religious subtext to Flatland (it’s telling that Abbott was a reverend and a theologian), with an exit into Spaceland and subsequent transcendence into a God-like omnipresence analogous with enlightenment and epiphany. But this is neither the most timely analogy nor, really, the most revealing. Among Victorian-thought-experiments-turned-quirky-novellas Flatland is surely singular, insofar as it could, conceivably, be accurately ‘translated’ into a 1980s-era home computer game (albeit a very difficult and boring one). And what are the ‘Spacelands’ of contemporary games but extensions of the formal principles of Flatland: virtual worlds constructed according to arbitrary limitations, underpinned by mathematical ‘realities’ to which we mere inhabitants are never granted access? The analogy, then, is between the immanent exits of the games themselves – their deaths, save points, level ends, level ups – which only ever lead to more game, and the transcendent exits lurking imperceptibly somewhere between the game and the code, a ‘slight upward or downward motion’ (which is to say a whole world) away from the limits and objectives set in advance by the game’s structure. It’s an idea which has long interested developers and, more recently, players, with whole subcultures dedicated to finding those exits through which one might ‘look down upon the insides of the things’. But what do transcendent exits look like? Are they even possible? And why – since games are not dystopias we are cursed to inhabit but fictional closed systems in which we participate willingly – do gamers ‘summon up the necessary volition’ to seek transcendent exits at all? While the answers to these questions are beyond the scope of this essay, the transcendent quirks of three classic games can, perhaps, point us in the right direction.
> First: the ambiguous ‘GOAL’ of Sonic the Hedgehog (1991). In Sonic –probably the first video game I ever played – there was one thing that always got me. In the vertigo-inducing bonus stage, your goal was to reach the ‘chaos emerald’ at the centre of a maze. But the maze’s numerous exits, which you endeavoured with rising panic to avoid, were all emblazoned with the word ‘GOAL’. Why, my perplexed seven-year-old self asked, did all the exits say ‘GOAL’ even though they were emphatically bad? What was in the least bit ‘GOAL’-like about these terrifying immanences? My childhood geekery led me to the Westernised version of the game’s back story, which revealed that the villain of the piece, Dr. Robotnik, had designed the mazes as traps. These apparently nefarious exits, then, were but sweet blessed releases from these endless, timeless labyrinths. But that explanation didn’t satisfy me. Leaving aside the fact that the game explicitly rewards you with extra lives for staying in the maze as long as possible, what kind of fool would go chasing the ‘GOAL’ exits, ‘scored’ as with an all-too-simple nudge left on the control pad? What kind of absurd universe was this anyway? Curiously, this was the only aspect of the universe that troubled me. Liberating tiny animals from robot shells with a mutant blue hedgehog I accepted as perfectly logical; the ambiguous ‘GOAL’ just didn’t make sense.
> I later learned that the ‘GOAL’ anomaly was probably due to a mistranslation in the Japanese-designed game, which Western distributors tried (with limited success) to accommodate in their back story. Two things to say about this: one) it makes me like it even more; and two) while this doesn’t involve transcendent exits per se, it frames the ‘flatlanding’ limitations of immanent exits. That’s why it didn’t make sense: it rendered both ‘GOAL’ and chaos emerald (failure and success) as ultimately one and the same. This error in translation – this glitch, you might say – is the accidental ‘Sphere’ that demonstrates such is the case. By extension, there is no essential (‘transcendent’) difference between the GAME OVER screen and the end credits the player is treated to once beating the final boss. Both say ‘now play again – or do something else’. But neither, the ambiguous ‘GOAL’ suggests, offers transcendence. As the theologian wants the real beyond the real, so the transcendent player wants the game beyond the game, the virtual beyond the virtual; like the ‘Sphere’, to ‘leave the Plane’.
> Second: the infamous ‘stump joke’ in The Secret of Monkey Island. While the ambiguous ‘GOAL’ of Sonic is a kind of poetic fortuity, the Monkey Island developers – primarily writer Ron Gilbert, a legend in a certain vintage school of game design that prizes narrative and humour over adrenaline and point-scoring – played with and extended the conventions of gaming to an extent that remains visionary today. Monkey Island has many of the generic hallmarks of postmodern fiction and cinema: intensely metatextual and ironically self-aware, its protagonist breaks the fourth wall more often than Mario and Luigi break crudely-pixellated blocks. But it’s the ways in which the game self-reflexively plays with its own medium – significantly, its exits – that are truly innovative. For one thing, you can’t die, subverting what is perhaps the most common gaming trope of all (this is partly a dig at rival developer Sierra, whose adventure games are infamous for the frequency and ease with which players pop their avatarial clogs). But even more amazing is the ‘stump joke’. Like all PC games of the time, Monkey Island was published on a number of floppy disks (in this case, three) which had to be switched around when moving between game areas (that is, at various immanent exits). The stump joke comes early on in the game, when attempting to interact with a nondescript tree stump in a labyrinthine forest. The player is told to ‘Insert disk 22 and press button to continue’, the first of several requests for high-numbered non-existent disks. Eventually the game resumes as the protagonist says, with characteristic understatement, ‘I guess I can’t go down there. I’ll just have to skip that part of the game.’ Joke is: there is no ‘down there’.
> Simple enough, you might think. But while I figured there was something amiss with the ambiguous ‘GOAL’, the stump joke in Monkey Island – which I first played around the same time as Sonic – was a meta conundrum way beyond my understanding. I was desperate for it to mean something: for the ‘down there’ to exist. And I wasn’t alone. The ‘joke’ was too confusing for many players (many of them grown-ups, I should add), and it was removed from later versions of the game. As ‘A Square’ is obliged to return to Flatland and, in an ending Plato could have predicted, is considered a lunatic and is promptly incarcerated for the social good, so the stump joke was just too transcendent for 1990s gamers’ mores. But games – and gamers – have changed a lot since then. The faux-transcendence of the stump joke has given way to a player-driven pursuit of transcendence, that ‘slight upwards or downward motion’ which breaks the game’s syntax, revealing it – even if momentarily – as something other than it claims to be. The increasing complexity of virtual game worlds, and the concomitant impossibility of testing its every ‘slight upward and downward motion’, has inspired gamers to play the game against its grain until it breaks, finding the glitch that reveals ‘that part of the game’ – the world inside the stump – which we were never supposed to see.
> Hence, third: ‘Hidden Interiors World’, or ‘Heaven’, of 2005 title Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It is difficult to describe, to a non-gamer, the sense of awe I have experienced on entering the world of San Andreas: its vastness; its character; its endless complexity; and, above all, its absolute liberty. But this liberty, I am aware even within my awe, is an illusion. All gamers know this (though the moralising press might disagree), but only the transcendent gamer, ‘summon[ing] up the necessary volition’, can see it for themselves. Such a gamer reaches for ‘Heaven’. As one how-to video on YouTube puts it:‘The Universe of Hidden Interiors or Heaven refers to [a] “universe” […] placed high in the sky, far from the fly height limit. Once inside Heaven, the normal world of San Andreas disappears.’
> In crude materialistic (virtualistic?) terms, ‘Heaven’ is where San Andreas keeps its interior areas, probably to limit loading times when passing (immanently) between them and the main external area. But this prosaic explanation is much too ‘superficial’ to do justice to ‘slight […] upward motion’ and the vision it begets! It’s the sudden collapse of space and distance, the eerie silence, the solitude. It’s the fact you’re in on a secret, have seen something few others have seen (seen it from the insideas well as the outside). It’s also the tranquility, a surprisingly affecting counterpoint to a game-world defined by its constant movement, violence, and energy. That said, I have to concede that its revelation, such as it is, bears little comparison to that of ‘A Square’. The excitement of being somewhere phenomenologically elsewhere is tempered – or perhaps it is exaggerated – by the knowledge that this world is merely an accident of design; its transcendence not a ground, but a figure’s remainder. And that too is its pleasure. ‘Heaven’ is a place where nothing ever happens – but we dream about it anyway.
> Poet and critic Ben Lerner has written of his ‘hatred of poetry’; actually, a frustration at poetry’s inevitable imperfections, borne of an idealistic love for it. He recalls, in his childhood, ‘speaking a word whose meaning I didn’t know but about which I had some inkling’, locating in that ‘provisional’ sense the essence of poetry. Once a word was ‘mastered’, it ‘click[s]’, and is no longer poetry. ‘Remember how easily our games could break down or reform or redescribe reality?’ he asks. Games have their poetry: their transcendent exits, metaphoric apertures nestled deep within the metonymic totality of their worlds. For innocence and experience, for order and liberty, for squares and spheres, they are exits worth chasing.
Text: Calum Rodger
Image: Sonic the Hedgehog (SEGA, 1991)