Games

The Ever Expanding Self and 'A Dark Room'

In A Dark Room, the player begins with a sense only of the immediacy of the self and its own needs, before becoming aware of a small corner of the world around that self, before then becoming aware of how that corner fits into a larger and larger universe.

This post contains spoilers for A Dark Room.

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and while still a young boy, the novel's protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, writes on the flyleaf of his geography book:

Stephen Dedalus

Class of Elements

Clongowes Wood College

Sallins

County Kildare

Ireland

The World

The Universe (James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dover, pg. 7-8)

As an exmple of a bildungsroman, a novel about human development, maturation, and growing up, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man uses this moment to emphasize Stephen's burgeoning awareness of himself and his relationship to and awareness of the world around that self. Indeed, all human deveopment is marked by this exponentially growing sense of the self in relationship to a larger world. We all begin life with a sense only of the immediacy of the self and its own needs, before becoming aware of a small corner of the world around ourselves, before then becoming aware of how that corner fits into a larger and larger universe.

Playing the browser based version of A Dark Room, I was reminded of this passage from Joyce's novel. Indeed, I almost feel that the whole game is in some way an effort to represent this model of the growing awareness of self and its relationship to a significantly larger universe and the discovery then of how the self fits into such a vast space.

The game begins on a white screen that says "A Dark Room" with only a modicum of detail about what the environment is like that "you" are in. "[T]he room is cold," the text reads, then "the fire is dead," and should you wait a few second, it explains, "the room is freezing."

In some sense, the game begins almost as if the main character has just been born. Your character, your "self," is aware only of his or her own surroundings and how those surroundings affect him or her. If the room is freezing, then you are freezing. The only interactive option at this point in the game is to click a button that reads "light fire."

Lighting the fire will, of course, warm the room. It will also illuminate it, making you and the protagonist aware not merely of themselves, but giving you more clearly a sense of the environment surrounding you and that that environment may be larger than a single room, an environment that may also need to be illuminated eventually: "the light from the fire spills from the windows, out into the dark." It also very shortly makes you aware that you are not the only self in the world, as a woman stumbles into the now "Firelit Room," who claims that she can build things if the room is heated for her. As far as self awareness goes, this is a gigantic leap in normal human consciousness from a sense of immediate needs, comfort and warmth, to the needs of others, the comfort and needs of those others. Though, like an infant, the other, you realize, also has needs that you are becoming aware of somehow mirroring your own. Additionally, though, that other, like a parent, is also some kind of provider, someone who will help you out, someone who apparently cares about your needs and ultimately your desires as well.

From there, the geography of A Dark Room, much like Stephen Dedalus's own sense of geography, expands when an additional tab appears called "A Silent Forest." This is the place that surrounds the previously dark room, which, of course, also surrounds the protagonist of the game. It is in this space that eventually others will gather, forming a village that you occupy.

That the game incrementally expands in both its environments and in the kinds of rules or systems that govern that environment is something that I have written about before and seems to me relevant thematically, both in terms of gameplay as well as in terms of the narrative premise of the game -- as this is a game about discovering the purpose and end goal of the game itself (G. Christopher Williams, "A Dark Room Is the Most Fun You'll Ever Have with a Spreadsheet", PopMatters, 2 July 2014). Additionally, this theme seems related to the experience of understanding the self in relationship to the world (as Stephen's writing on the flyleaf of his Geography book does), as essentially A Dark Room is about initially understanding yourself as a character in an immediate way, in relationship to a room, then in relationship to a village, then in relationship a region, and finally in relationship to the universe itself. Of course then, what the game is concerned with is a consideration of purpose. Similarly, that is part of the consideration that Stephen is musing about by recognizing where he stands in relationship to a much vaster universe than himself. How do I fit into all of this?

That the game ultimately suggests a pretty fundamental difference between yourself and the environment, that you are most likely quite alien from the spaces in which you reside and the people within them and then that you attempt to escape from those spaces into a larger universe, seems to get at the heart of the question of self awareness in relationship to the world. Okay, who am I, what is this place, who are these other people and who or what are they to me, and then ultimately, what differentiates me from the rest of the universe? These are essentially the central mysteries of A Dark Room, mysteries familiar to the player because these are questions that are commonly asked as anyone's sense of self incrementally expands as one grows up and then grows into their world.

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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