DHARMA's Bent Reality: The Video Game Sensibility of Lost

by Elwyn Palmerton

3 Aug 2008

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

In a column titled, “The Lester Bangs of Video Games”, Chuck Klosterman argued that the video game has not yet found its defining critic; its “Lester Bangs.”  This is somewhat strange or interesting, in part, he argues, because “video games in 2006 are the cultural equivalent of rock music in 1967”—and, therefore, we would almost naturally expect a culturally significant form to have a defining authoritative critical voice to speak for it.  As he puts it:

As far as I can tell, there is no major critic who specializes in explaining what playing a given game feels like, nor is anyone analyzing what specific games mean in any context outside the game itself. There is no Pauline Kael of video-game writing. There is no Lester Bangs of video-game writing. And I’m starting to suspect there will never be that kind of authoritative critical voice within the world of video games, which is interesting for a lot of reasons.

This is interesting, regardless of whether he’s right or not about such a critic existing, and for more reasons than he implies.  It suggests that to the extent that criticism is an art form (and vice versa) that we might also expect this critical function to be effectively performed in part by other art forms, and that this might entail an assimilation and translation of games’ essential content into other media, and that this, as it were, might show—rather than tell—us something about just how, exactly, it feels to play those games and, possibly, to be alive, circa 2008. This type of influence would also attest to the cultural importance of video games in ways that both validate Klosterman’s (sort of belligerently a priori) stated assumption that games are at this historical juncture “equivalent to rock and roll in 1967.”

I suspect that there are actually countless examples of this: the widespread popularity of the Super Mario Bros. Theme Song, which the comedian Kyle Cease has called “The Anthem of Our Generation”, as a semi-ironic cover is, at least, a superficial example of this.  Cease’s comedy itself might even qualify as the type of criticism that Klosterman laments the lack of.  Speaking of what it was once like watching parents naïvely try to play Super Mario Brothers without “running,” his punch-line, “Hold ‘B’ down mom, goddamnit!” says as much about how video games “feel” as anything that I can think of, additionally providing evidence of the 1967-era rock-and-roll-type generational divide which would further support Klosterman’s thesis. 

More substantial, in terms of assimilating the content of video games, might be the math-rock band Battles, whose songs feel very much like video game music (while sounding not quite like anything you’ve heard before, exactly), to the extent that whenever they transition from one section of a song to the next, one feels the unique satisfaction of having accomplished something admittedly minor and inconsequential but nonetheless entirely satisfying; like finishing a level.

However, perhaps the most complete and fascinating assimilation of video game-type content into a different medium at a deep and thorough level that I am aware of occurs within the narrative world of the popular television show Lost.

Lost appears unique in the degree to which it has absorbed the influence of gaming and particularly so in the lineage of video games which seems to have influenced it.  Also, while many movies and television shows are video game-like insofar as they feature unadulterated or nearly continuous action or violence, Lost stands out in that it captures a different and perhaps more experientially significant aspect of gaming: primarily, the specifically over-loaded sense of place and a particular, almost talismanic weight accorded to objects. In games and in Lost, the particularity of individual locations and objects (or “items”) is inextricably linked to the dramatic tension of progression through the game (and Lost‘s narrative) in ways that are worth examining in detail, particularly for what they reveal about how video games feel.

Lost\'s \

Lost‘s “New Otherton”

In effect, new locations (levels) in video games are discovered after a moment of maximum tension and then the subsequent release of that tension (after finishing a previous level).  The graphical novelties of a new location (and its items) are thus presented basically as a type of reward, but also, simultaneously, as the presentation of successive challenges.  These are some of the mechanics of play that I always associated with the oft-stated neurochemical fact that videogames cause the release of dopamine in the brain.  Gamers’ typically fetishistic relationship to the notion of “graphics” is an expression of the desire that this succession of visual thrills be as intense and immersive as technologically possible.  The movement from place to place and the relationship of location to particular achievements and goals is an essential part of the feeling of playing most types of action/adventure video games.  Also, the artistry of designing videogames would seem to lie largely in adjusting the difficulty to create a satisfying flow of tension and release—a sort of kinesthetic pacing, possibly analogous to plotting in conventional narrative forms.  Similar to gambling, video games offer a type of intermittent reinforcement.  This, actually, as much as or more so than higher resolution graphics, might be what makes a game fun. 

Similarly, in Lost, the discovery of new locations generally serves a narrative function and often coincides with the heightening of dramatic tension or its release, or both. Generally, as in games, the characters’ motivations are inextricably linked to a desire to go to a particular place—The Hatch, The Orchid, Off-The-Island, New Otherton, etc.—or to acquire a particular item.  Given, also, The Island’s overall lack of man-made clutter and its delimited geography (like a board game board or a “World Map” in video games), the objects and places that are of importance are granted a sort of iconic value while the characters’ motives, while often ambiguous, present a sort of heightened clarity of relations between themselves, the setting, and their possessions.

This also echoes Damon Lindelof and co.‘s frequent statements that they spend more time developing the characters than working on the show’s mythology, which they describe as “icing on the cake;” the visual and mythological splendors of the Lost world are given their visual and emotional impact by our investment in the characters lives—not unlike the way that engaging gameplay is what makes games’ graphics compelling.  When Locke discovers the hatch, for example, we’re right there with him, wondering what’s in it and rooting for him to be able to open it and feeling, basically, just like we do when we play video games and we encounter a door that we can’t open.  We try throwing everything that we have at it but unfortunately it’s not enough;  we haven’t yet found the place that contains the item that will allow us entry.  In this sense, all items in games, as in Lost, are potentially keys.  Locke, of course, had not yet been to “The Black Pearl”—a black pirate ship, mysteriously ship-wrecked in the middle of the jungle—and, therefore, had not found the dynamite.  “The Black Pearl” here, is significant, insofar as it epitomizes the relationship of “place” to “item” as it occurs in games and in Lost

A perfectly iconic set of DHARMA tomatoes

A perfectly iconic set of DHARMA tomatoes

In other ways, also, objects in Lost—or at least the types of objects of any significance to the plot—often take on a certain talismanic weight and value.  Partly this is because of the obviously limited resources and the relative importance of man-made stuff on an island seemingly (at first) largely devoid of civilization (which changes somewhat as the series progresses.)  Guns, weapons, and medicine, in general, have the sort of importance that they have in video games.  Ammo is limited.  You must make do with knives unless it is absolutely necessary to use a gun.  They are like precious commodities that must be acquired under particular circumstances and are often—as with the dynamite/“Black Pearl” relationship—synonymous with locations. 

Likewise, food:  If your health or energy is ailing, you can either fish, jump into the trees for mangos, or catch the equally homogenous boxes of Dharma Initiative food falling from the sky!

In other instances, this talismanic value of objects is exaggerated by allegorical design, as with the Virgin Mary icons full of heroin (also another object/location pairing).  The surprising second-season plenitude of heroin for Charlie (and guns for everyone else) mirrors another game-trope where items (as well as enemies or obstacles) that are initially sparse and valuable (or difficult to vanquish) become increasingly ubiquitous and mundane as your character progresses to new levels.  Similarly, the variety and appearance of certain types of “monsters” (from Polar Bears in the jungle, to the smoke monster, to camouflage-clad mercenaries wielding machine guns) suggests an idiosyncratic and motley variety of antagonists that is typically specific to videogames.  Even video game-inspired movies rarely encompass this type or range of outright oddity.

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