DHARMA's Bent Reality

The Video Game Sensibility of Lost

by Elwyn Palmerton

3 August 2008

Image from Ubisoft's Lost: Via Domus for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 

Image from Ubisoft’s Lost: Via Domus for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360

The discovery of new places—The Beach, New Otherton, The Looking Glass, and The Orchid, among others—also define the narrative stakes of each successive season or specific narrative arcs. It’s not coincidental, for example, that the finales of Seasons one, two, and four were all accompanied by the appearance of important new locations:  The Black Pearl and the opening of the Hatch is season one, The Looking Glass in season three, and The Orchid in season four.

Of course, the design and purposes of particular settings also help to evoke the atmosphere of games. The “Dharma Stations”, for example, with their archetypal identities, often seem at odds with their immediate surroundings in ways that seem as incongruous as the random identities of successive “worlds” in a game like Super Mario Brothers. In video games, one is typically forced to march across terrain that is presented as an almost linear sequence of archetypal environments, whether elemental (water, air, fire, earth) or genre-based (haunted house, dungeon, jungle, village, engine room, etc.). In this light, it actually seems as if “The Looking Glass” in season three is basically the show’s token “underwater level.” 

As in games, also, the juxtapositions of different elements or archetypes might seem as stark or incongruous as when, in the season four finale Benjamin Linus goes under The Orchid’s surface level green-house, to an underground chamber containing a time-machine, which he blows up so as to enter into an incongruously cold, icy, and seemingly ancient chamber with a single strange, horizontal, gear-like wheel that somehow, mysteriously, moves The Island when turned. Consequently, it also “warps” Benjamin Linus to a far away desert in a move that, similarly to the “warp-zones” in Super Mario Brothers, is also irreversible. Benjamin Linus cannot ever return to the Island again.

The pathos of Ben, in that moment, is reinforced by the icy barrenness of the room and the self-debasement of his physically straining himself in order to effectuate his own banishment. Here, character, narrative arc (plot), setting, and the show’s mythology coalesce into a unitary image of Ben’s despair and self-sacrifice. This is part of the show’s genius and accomplishment—that its use of video-game aesthetics and forms is a lot more than just window dressing but thoroughly integrated.

In interviews, Lindelof has cited Myst as a particular influence and the stylistic parallels between that game and the Lost set design (specifically of the Dharma Initiative stations) is startling and significant. Additionally, it also evokes a whole lineage of games from which Myst evolved and suggests an unexpected cultural significance for this overlooked-of-late genre of game—one that begins with text-only adventure games like Zork, continues through to graphic and textual interface games made by Sierra On-line, and then on to the Myst series of games. In particular, these games envisioned a narrative world, largely devoid of violence or even any action at all. These games posited worlds as geographic areas that functioned as a series of ongoing, inter-locking puzzles…which sounds sort of familiar.

Here’s a screenshot from Zork

As you can see, this looks like just about exactly as much fun as re-configuring your hard-drive. No explosions, scenic digital splendor, or homicidal flying turtles. It’s basically a video game for people that would just as soon be reading as playing a video game. 

Even so, it also contains in this one single ostensibly dull screen-shot, intimations of several aspects of Lost‘s narrative structure. First and foremost is the overall discrete (implicitly bordered and unique) quality of the description of places. One moves by typing a directional (N, S, E, W, NE, up, down, climb, etc.) and then is treated to another description of a location. When objects are included in the description of the location, one is allowed to type something such as “Take matches” (or “sword,” or “lantern”, or whatever). From then on, the item will be included in your “inventory”, which you can read a list of by typing “inventory” or “I”. 

In this sense, Zork illustrates in an absolutely skeletal and purely conceptual fashion, the basic mechanism by which objects and locations function in most video games. Only objects of narrative importance can be “taken”. Even in narratively and graphically sophisticated contemporary games this function of objects holds true; presumably you can “take” a gun, but you usually can’t pick dandelions from the digital scenery. Some of the puzzles of those early games hinged upon this distinction. That is, solving a puzzle was a matter of figuring out what was window dressing and what was stuff that you were syntactically allowed to take. (In this sense, the earliest example of a thing is often the most interesting for the precise reason that it bears the closest relationship to the mechanics of its derivation, invention, or materials.)

If this all sounds tediously abstract and analytical, that’s because it probably is. However, there is a more interesting visual analogue for this basically conceptual relationship which takes the form of home-made maps. In the case of Zork, these are maps that players have constructed as a tool for progressing through the game. 


A player-created map of Zork. (A larger, legible version can be found here.)

A player-created map of Zork
(A larger, legible version can be found here.)

Here is an exceptionally elaborate and stylized version of the type of map that I think that someone would almost certainly have to make in order to progress through the Zork universe. It also resembles the type of “world map” that occurs in many video games. This image is both fascinating and has the sort of weird quasi-utilitarian beauty that evokes both certain types of outsider art as well as the information-systems/mapping art of artists like Mark Lombardi, Erik Parker, or Ward Shelley, who create stylized maps of various types of cultural and/or political information.

More importantly, though (for the purposes at hand, anyway), is just how much it resembles the types of similarly “home-made” maps made by characters in Lost in an attempt to understand their environment, solve its puzzles, or communicate information about it to the other characters. 

A shot of the map through the jungle to Ben’s (“Henry’s”) balloon:


A map of the Island and all of its DHARMA Initiative Stations as derived from the black-lit panel on the door, as seen by John Locke while the vertically sliding heavy metal door itself bore down on his allegorically significant legs:


Space is, in a sense, visualized in a similar manner in Lost as it is in these types of games, and experienced in roughly the same way. That is, aside from the jungle which functions largely as a figurative “ground” (no pun intended), locations on the map are as discrete and loaded with individual, distinct and almost archetypal identities as they are in video-games. These maps also resemble the type of nodal structures that underlie the most basic functions of computer programming languages or, similarly, flow-charts.

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//Mixed media