Video games face a lot of interesting problems whenever they want to tell a coherent story. You need an enemy that does not create any moral dilemmas if you slaughter them wholesale. The main character has to be dramatically important to the point of ludicrous. They also need to have a blank enough personality that the average person can project onto them. Even the touchstones of game narrative have convoluted plot holes. Bioshock stops making sense after the third act depending on your choices. Uncharted 2 might be remarkable for having good writing and acting but there is still a drastic difference between Nathan Drake the character and Nathan Drake the person slaughtering hundreds of soldiers. Even these games ignore fundamental elements of gameplay like loading your saved game, artificial interactions, or the natural emotional distance that all players have from the consequences of their conduct. It’s funny then that there is already a movie which has tackled most of these issues by presenting a protagonist who is stuck in a time loop.
Groundhog Day is a remarkably pliant work of art. Bill Murray (Phil Connors) is stuck repeating February 2nd in a small town in Pennsylvania. There’s no explanation for it, he just wakes up over and over to the same events constantly. An article over at suite101.com points out numerous religious interpretations of the film (Kerri Carpenter, ”Groundhog Day: A Classic Comedy With A Moral Legacy”, suite101.com, 27 Jan 2010). Catholics see it as a parable for Purgatory, Buddhists identify with the themes of self-reflection that Murray’s character experiences because he can never change the world due to the time loop. Life always resets, and no one has any memory of the things Murray did except him. Mario Sesti points out that the film’s character arc is seeing Murray’s changing relationship with this situation (”Groundhog Day The Movie: Buddhism and Me”, P.S. A Column on Things, 20 Jun 2008). Murray is stuck in the time loop long enough to learn fluent French, the piano, memorize every person in town, every event experienced in the day, and every reaction to his conduct. Sesti comments, “[Murray] becomes increasingly less the hostage of his small-town world and more its creator.”
Ken Sanes points out that Murray’s situation inevitably makes all of his exchanges and roles contrived. Murray is just seeing what happens when he does something different and only frustrated by the lack of consequences for his attempt at changing his situation. He can’t die even if he commits suicide. Sanes explains, “Since he participates in this virtual world, perhaps it is most like participatory fictions—MUDs, video games, virtual realities. The movie similarly seeks to be our timeless interlude in which we can try on different ways of living” (“More on Groundhog Day”, Transparency).
The place that you can spot this connection most starkly between Murray’s conduct in the time loop and video games is a Bioware RPG. One of the very first things that Murray decides to test out once he realizes his predicament is to see who he can have sex with. In this sequence he quizzes an attractive woman about her background, figures out how to be her perfect fantasy, and even promises to marry her to get laid. It’s hard to not notice the similarity between this and how you interact with most people in a Bioware RPG. Save your game, go chat them up, load if you offend them, repeat if you find an angle they enjoy. Like Murray in the time loop, a lot of players will methodically go through the game’s virtual space repeatedly just to see who they can have sex with. The most frustrating and time consuming moments in a Bioware game is when you can’t get a character to do something. It’s not just sex, sometimes it’s a difficult argument like keeping a squad mate alive in a later mission. Murray encounters a similar dilemma when he realizes there is no plausible way to get his Producer, Andy McDowell, to have sex with him. No matter how perfectly the conversation goes or how perfect the day is, Murray can’t get what he wants. Similarly, he is forced to accept that the homeless man that he wants to help is going to die no matter what he does.
Frustration at discovering even in his quasi-omnipotent state that he cannot get everything that he wants leads to more eerie similarities between gamers and Murray’s character. While drunk driving he declares, “I’m not going to live by their rules anymore. You make choices and you live with them.” When gamers become bored or frustrated by the confines of the virtual setting, they tend to undergo a similar rebellion. Games like GTA will let you slaughter every pigeon in Liberty City, pile up cars and blow them up, or do something like what can be done in an RPG in which people choose evil options just to see the response. Murray does everything from gorge himself, sleep with prostitutes, dress up as Clint Eastwood, and even rob a bank.
Eventually he starts to snap at the meaninglessness of his existence by trying to kill the groundhog. Murray finally has a personal breakthrough when he is able to prove to Rita that the time loop is real by predicting the day’s events perfectly. He explains, “I am a God, not the God, but just a God.” When Rita finally believes him he confesses that the worst part about the time loop isn’t the repetition, it’s the lack of change. He wakes up and no matter how good or bad he has been in his small world, it doesn’t change anything. While most gamers will have probably turned the machine off before they hit this degree of desperation, the reason that they’re quitting is the same reason that Murray begins to fall apart. If your actions don’t have any consequences, you feel helpless and don’t want to participate.
Finally, it is the awe-inspiring amount of repetition, of grinding at skills until he perfects them, that connects Murray’s character to gamers. There are different guesses for how long he’s stuck in the loop, but whatever the amount, it’s long enough to learn how to ice sculpt, speak French, play piano, memorize 16th Century poetry, memorize every event in the day, and get to personally know every person in the loop. He’s willing to do this act for selfish reasons at first, but the film tracks his eventual realization that doing it for others is more meaningful. David Lavery writes about Murray’s character, “He helps some elderly ladies change a flat tire (every day). He catches a boy who falls out of a tree (every day). He performs the Heimlich maneuver on the master of ceremonies of the Groundhog Day festivities (every day). He becomes the necessary angel of an old street person he had previous ignored, using the powers of eternal recurrence this time not for personal gain, not to gain insider information about a desired woman, but to reverse an unnecessary death” (“Same-o, Same-o: Eternal Recurrence in Groundhog Day”, Writings: David Lavery, 1995), which all bears an odd resemblance to people’s conduct in most RPGs and MMOs. If you’re just going through all that grinding for your own sense of satisfaction, the game becomes hollow and dull quickly. If there are genuine people involved or an actual sense of being able to help a guild or group, the repetition takes on a different meaning that removes its boredom.
One of the most interesting interpretations of Groundhog Day is the Bodhisattva interpretation because it demonstrates samsara or the constant cycle of rebirth that humans always try to escape. An article featuring an interview with Angela Zito explains that the movie “is a cinematic version of the teachings in Mahayana Buddhism, known as ‘the greater vehicle’ (Alex Kuczynski, “Groundhog Almighty”, The New York Times , 7 Dec 2003). She explains, “In Mahayana nobody ever imagines they are going to escape samsara until everybody else does. That is why you have bodhisattvas, who reach the brink of nirvana, and stop and come back to save the rest of us. Bill Murray is the bodhisattva. He is not going to abandon the world. On the contrary, he is released back into the world to save it”, which is intrinsically what every video game’s story rarely addresses and the film eloquently tackles. When the plot is over, all you can do is go back to the start. If you die, you get sent back to a different part to try again. You can learn everything about this world and exercise whatever freedoms you can manage, but it won’t really change anything. You’re still stuck in a confined system. The real reason that you help the characters in the game and save the world is because it’s the only meaningful thing to you that you can do in a game.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times.