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

Lost viewers might also recognize the stark black screen and command prompt with flashing cursor.  Is it possible that the lovelorn and sleepless vigilant Desmond, alone in the hatch for all those years, charged with the task of entering “The Numbers” (“4 8 15 16 23 42”) into the computer every 88 minutes for several years on end, is merely a clever allegory or vicious satire of the obsessive gamer hunched in front of a computer at all hours on virtual quests (one, ironically, engaged in a world of overall less vibrancy than that of his immediate physical circumstances)?

Of course, we don’t actually know whether Desmond’s Sisyphean task is a heroic effort in the service of maintaining Life as We Know It, or essentially futile.  It also suggests the paranoia that we experience on a daily basis of interacting with mechanical devices that are for all intents and purposes Black Boxes.  The inner workings of these devices are basically mysterious—a condition dramatized by the fact that the Islanders, Locke et al, have no idea what will happen if they suddenly fail to input the numbers as scheduled; and by the ambiguously inter-related influences of magic and science both on and off The Island.

When they do eventually fail to input the code and the hatch implodes, the clock which had previously counted down the 88 minutes turns into a set of mysterious symbols.  These glyphs happen to be nearly identical to a recurring set of symbols used in a number of puzzles in the Myst series, and appear to be the inscrutably mystical symbols of a primitive culture that never actually existed.  This is only partly true as they are, in fact, the inscrutably mystical symbols of an actually extant primitive culture, which is to say, ours—at least, insofar as they resemble wingdings.

In other less general ways, as well, Myst is also a direct and significant influence on Lost, in particular on the aesthetics of The Island and the design of the Dharma stations.  The most obvious similarity is the geographic lay-out of these respective worlds—both of which might be characterized as densely forested natural settings interspersed with station-like outposts that present a series of puzzles.  Likewise, they both appear as the still semi-functioning ruins of a mysteriously vanished group or organization of people, and the protagonists’ appearance there is both primarily serendipitous and conspicuously inexplicable.

Aside from these general and coincidental similarities, the stylistic resemblances and influence are striking.  Both feature the recurrence of casual bamboo-type structures amidst luxuriant foliage, precipitous topography, and stunningly picturesque natural terrain juxtaposed with mechanical devices, gears, hoists, pulleys, series of pneumatic tubes, and all manner of tarnished bronze or rusted metal amidst a widely variegated natural terrain. Oh yeah, and oddly situated pirate-type ships

Their respective design styles are both vaguely Eastern, austere but casually ornamental; iconographic and technologically advanced; anachronistic and quasi-obsolete.  These similarities—best encapsulated, perhaps, as the juxtaposition of the picturesque setting with the antiquated but functional and highly aestheticized technology—is important not just as a stylistic element, but also as part of the allegorical significance of the Lost cosmology.  The technology and the natural setting are not simply juxtaposed (in Lost and Myst), but elegantly intertwined, co-extensive, and (perhaps?) mutually supportive.  The Island is archetypal insofar as it presents a primeval conception of a generalized and anthropomorphized “nature” (“Gaia”, or “Mother Earth,” generally speaking) but also innovatively Post-Modern insofar as The Island is symbiotically related to the various technological apparatuses situated all over (and under) its surface. Its fate would seem to be determined by that technology and the humans that built and use it.  Stylistically, in Lost, the overall dereliction and decrepitude of this virtual world—as defined by ‘70s architectural and design ideologies and dated retro-futuristic genre styles, would also seem to reflect our own disillusionment with those eras’ retrospectively naïve techno-optimism and the sad spectacle of our own slick techno-consumerist dysphoria which they helped to engender.

The island of Myst

The island of Myst

At any rate, however, the litany of formal similarities might be secondary to the essential fact that both Myst and Lost are definitively virtual worlds.  Where Myst is a product of computer rendering in which biological matter and man-made elements are rendered in the same abstractly fractal textures, Lost is an equally “virtual” environment.  All of the Dharma Stations and man-made features of the Island are designed as sets and built to present a unified and iconographically coherent style.  This, combined with the quintessential exoticism of the locale, creates the overall sensation of intense hyper-reality not unlike games or computer rendered environments themselves.  The overall effect is enthralling and uncanny.

As a “virtual” landscape, then, The Island is, naturally, bordered on all sides by an impassable boundary, the ocean, and invisible, in a sense, to the “real” world around it.  When Desmond tries to sail away from the island, he’s unable to get away from land.  As in some games with land bordered by water, you can only go out so far out before the screen simply repeats itself like a scrolling background in a cheap cartoon; turn around, though, and (surprise!) you’re no farther away from land than when you started. 

A candy bar!  Health up!

A candy bar!  Health up!

As with “items”, codes in games are also keys, and the ability to leave The Island requires a particular item/code combination: a boat and, more importantly, the bearing.  Narrative in this sense—similar to the aforementioned virtuality of the Island—functions much like a type of code, almost like a computer program.  The vast, apparently expansive ocean, isn’t all that vast or expansive after all.  It’s more like a closed, impenetrable door waiting to be unlocked.

This, in a sense, also explains the ubiquity of The Numbers (not to be confused with the bearing) in Lost.  Their recurrence both on and off The Island in ways that seem inexplicably unrelated (most notably as Hurley’s winning lottery numbers) is one of the more bizarre and apparently supernatural aspects of the Lost mythology. The paranoia that they invoke, similar to the paranoia of Locke and company entering The Numbers into the computer, is the paranoia of the digital world collapsing into our own and our increasing reliance upon this symbiotic relationship and, consequently, the immense power of what would seem to be incredibly minute datum (like Y2K but less anti-climactic).  Objects and places, no less than numbers, are part of this code, and this is why Desmond, tragically, is unable to leave the island during his 3rd season attempt with the sailboat: oblivious to these circumstances, he is floating on signifiers in a sliding sea.

If the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 are avatars for us as viewers (or, in the case of the extras playing other survivors, “non-player” characters), then Benjamin Linus is the writers’ own avatar.  He is the one who is constantly reminding us, “I always have a plan,” which would seem to be (in a rare overtly self-referential nod) Lindelof and company’s way of reassuring skeptical fans who suspect that they might be winging it.  And this, it would seem, would be the nature of Lindelof and co.‘s work and process itself:  they have an idea where they’re going and a number of ideas about possible points along the way.  Since the introduction of flash-forwards, this aspect of their narrative technique is made explicit and embodied in our experience of the show.  In effect, they could not have had everything mapped out from the beginning (because this would be a logical and logistical impossibility), but they always have a plan!

The numbers, however, the ones that haunt Hurley, suggest something else.  They define the supernatural elements of Lost.  In a “virtual” world, it would only make sense that the Ghost in the Machine is expressed most effectively as a set of mysteriously occurring numbers—a bug represented as a constant, perhaps, or possibly a “Daemon”— a term which, in computer-science jargon, refers to a background process not in direct control of the user.  The Numbers, therefore, may represent the aspects of the island that maybe even Benjamin Linus cannot control or fathom.  They suggest the unpredictability of process in which, nonetheless, you always have a plan.

The numbers themselves have attained iconic status.

The numbers themselves have attained iconic status.

It is here that the video game/Lost metaphor breaks down.  In the final analysis, these are different media.  More importantly, this is where the sense of the term “interaction” comes into play.  As Klosterman rightly suggests, games are more like architecture than like other media, however, he is wrong in thinking that we “can manipulate them.”  Games are composed of a discrete and limited quantity of code printed on a CD-ROM, cartridge, or some other digital storage medium.  This we cannot change.  We can only record and register distinct states of pre-determined sets of algorithmic, narrative, and visual possibilities—thus, essentially, “moving through” their (virtual) architectures.  This is why I suspect that, aside from being a little bit like “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories, the narrative aspects of video games can never be truly interactive, and the interactive parts can never be totally narrative in the full dramatic sense of the term and all of the controlled specificity that entails.  Yes, of course, some of these permutations might be unique but, as Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, “No one will pretend that, in the glance by which we take in a limpid night, the exact number of visible stars is prefigured”—meaning, of course, that certain types of novelty, insofar as everything is ultimately “unique,” are ultimately utterly insignificant.  Or as it was put, quite more succinctly, in the interactive text of Zork I: The Great Underground Empire, “This is part of a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.”

At any rate, the notion of interactivity does suggest the possibility of co-authoring the work.  In this sense, performing arts, like live music, for instance, where a live audience is present at the creation (or re-creation) of a work, might be almost as interactive, or even more-so, than gaming itself.  The audience here co-authors the song insofar as they influence its intensity and nuance as presented by its authors in real-time—which might actually be a fairly good description of the actual magnitude of gamers’ abilities to interact with games.

The larger point is that all art is interactive, a continuation of a conversation stretching back to the dawn of man.  Our ability to respond to works of art by talking about them, looking at them, ignoring them, writing about them, or making further works of art inspired, influenced, or based upon them, is all part of the technologically complex and relatively newfangled cultural phenomenon now called art.  I’ve played a few videogames in my day, but Lindelof and company have really, truly, interacted with them in a new and original way.  While a great show like, say, The Wire is rightfully acclaimed for its psychological realism, social relevancy, and political engagement—the virtues of showing us what other people’s lives are like—Lost does something no less impressive and remarkable by showing us how it feels to be ourselves.


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