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

[3 August 2008]

By Elwyn Palmerton

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.

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.

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.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/dharmas-bent-reality-the-video-game-sensibility-of-lost/