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'LOST' and Video Games

From PenneyDesign.com

At the end of the fourth season, LOST abandoned mimicking the content of video games and instead focused on how they characterize space.

An excellent article at PopMatters by Elwyn Palmerton details the many similarities of the first four seasons of LOST with adventure games. One of the show’s creators, Damon Lindelof, has noted that the game Myst was a big inspiration, and it makes sense. A remote island filled with unexplained mechanical gadgets, the slow process of gaining access to these areas, and other video game plot devices are scattered throughout the show. Keys and objects are often the focus of the plot, characterization occurs during the static flashbacks, and much of the show is spent moving from different locations. The show’s first four seasons so heavily resemble a classic adventure game narrative that several spoofs have appeared suggesting what a Lucasarts version would be like. There are a few other video game aspects of the show that I thought were worth pointing out, particularly ones that develop after the period of the show that Palmerton’s article covers. At the end of the fourth season, LOST abandoned mimicking the content of video games and instead focused on how they characterize space.

Due to the inherent disembodied nature of games, they lean heavily on player action to create a sense of space and location. You engage with the space as you look for things to do or dangers to avoid. Past actions and physical limitations define the meaning of a game world. If you go over here, you’ll die; if you fight that monster without the proper weapon, it will kill you. Everything in a game is defined by its relationship with other elements. This starts to enter the realm of theoretical architecture and phenomenology because while buildings or locations can be defined by the concept of their relationships, in video games it is so intrinsic that it’s impossible to ignore. Bernard Tschumi, a noted architect in the field of Decontructivism, explains in his book Architecture and Disjunction, “Any architectural sequence includes or implies at least three relations. First, an internal relation, which deals with the method of work; then two external relations – one dealing with the juxtaposition of actual spaces, the other with program (occurrences or events)” (153). He clarifies these ideas into concepts like representing procedure, variation, and sequence of events, respectively. In video games, these elements are often perceived simultaneously, but I’m going to risk a broad assertion and say that linear media can only do one at a time effectively.

You can always point to Ulysses by James Joyce or David Lynch’s films to prove me wrong, but the clarity in a video game when communicating these perceptions simultaneously is hard to not notice. A traditionally linear format trying to represent three relations of space simultaneously is very difficult to keep coherent. Inevitably the authors' experimenting with the concept would have to detach the narrative from characters to focus on location or the passage of time. Story has to suffer as a consequence. On the other hand, if I die in a game, I load my save and go back to a prior point in the sequence of events. I don’t wonder if something is dangerous or helpful, I know it. A character is no longer defined as brash or bubbly, I can plow through a dialogue tree by saying every pleasant or nasty thing allowed to see variant reactions. I don’t know who characters are in the storyline. I know who they are as a conceptual whole. Actions and time are bound in a game, and events do not move forward until a player performs a certain action that defines that area. By contrast, linear media typically relies on characters and events to drive itself.

From zedomax.com

How this connects back to LOST is that in Season 5 the island becomes unhinged from time and the cast is scattered around multiple points in the show’s mythology. Unlike past seasons, where the flashbacks were methods of characterization similar to cutscenes, here the show is split between two groups operating in different time periods. One is a traditional linear show, the other consists of retelling the events of the island’s past through firsthand encounters. The island is still ever present, but the first method of characterization using adventure game elements has been abandoned. We no longer move to each location to discover its secrets. Instead these locations and characters are defined by the events that took place in their history. Jin sees Russo and company being shipwrecked, then another time flash sends him to the tragic day that she lost her mind. One flash leaves the survivors standing outside the hatch debating whether or not to ask Desmond for food. Another has them clash with the Others during the 1950s. Eventually, they end up in 1977 and enlist with the Dharma Initiative. Several major events are witnessed firsthand during this period like “The Incident”, Benjamin Linus’ corruption from the Black Smoke, and the creation of the Hatch itself.

In a show that is distinctly linear, this kind of storytelling would have little to no narrative weight. Would it matter if the events from Season 1 of 24 were retold from a different character's perspective? Would there be any purpose to Jack Bauer going back in time (other than a few hilarious Kiefer Sutherland exchanges)? Probably not without some sort of equally linear motivating force because the only thing that a time travel story could be about is just a continuation of the original linear plot. By contrast, LOST repeatedly emphasizes that the cast cannot change the events of the past. They are reliving the show’s mythology first hand, and in the process, redefining the spaces of the island not as discovered secrets but as lived in spaces. Going back to Tschumi’s argument about architectural space, the show is redefining the juxtaposition between the locations of the island by imposing a different perception of the show’s sequence of events. The Dharma Initiative is no longer a cryptic group that we know little about, they are now a friendly but crazed group of scientists. The Incident is not just the force that created the button, it’s where Juliet met her tragic end. The show redefines its space and in doing so demonstrates a kind of inter-related storytelling. Given the numerous Ulysses references scattered throughout the Fifth and Sixth season, it seems likely the creators are aware of what they’re doing.

There are several films and Star Trek episodes that have juggled this concept (the finale to The Next Generation comes to mind), but LOST is unique in the scale of its redefining of a space. In LOST, the island was always the central character. Once the cast returns to the present at the start of the Sixth Season, the show begins the "Wrap it Up" sequences that have dragged down all of the great shows this past decade. Questions people stopped caring about a long time ago were answered, character arcs that were abandoned were resumed, and giant plot holes were created as unanswerable questions were given their final answers. I enjoyed the Sixth Season as the only reasonable ending that the show could have had, but it was a shame to see it abandon all of its experimental storytelling for a linear story contrasted with character vignettes in an alternate universe. Which certainly is still experimental, just not very video game oriented.

There are a lot of different explanations for these narrative techniques that don’t involve video games because almost every medium has explored the concept of space. Modernist literature like Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse or James Joyce’s Ulyssess are examples of books tackling the concept. A film like Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway explores characterization through the act of fantasy and changing the process of events in a person’s life. The difference is that video games are much easier for a casual observer to understand. The official game for the show, LOST: Via Domus, is an example of this issue because when confronted with making a game about the show, there is nothing else to really do except make it about location. You can talk to various characters for the sheer novelty and take pictures of various events, but like the time travelers of Season 5, the player can’t have any real impact. There’s not much of a story to tell that hasn’t already been in the show. Elliott is just another character with a past. The game’s main virtue instead is finally letting people interact with the island for themselves, even if it’s something as simple as not pushing the button.

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