Between the Haunted and the Weird: The Horrific Ontology of Videogames

Oxenfree is a 2016 game by Night School Studios, a point-and-click story-focused adventure game pseudo-throwback similar to something like Kentucky Route Zero (that is to say: mechanically and tonally it mimics adventure games of the days of yore but for the most part jettisons obtuse puzzling). It concerns a group of teens who go to an island in the Pacific Northwest for a night of unsupervised drinking and fun, and we all know how that sort of thing turns out for fictional teens. At the time of its release it was compared to the similar but much bigger project, Until Dawn, which also deals with the “teens in a remote area encounter bad stuff” subgenre of horror, but this is misleading. Whereas Until Dawn‘s primary reference points are the slasher films from which this typical premise is derived, Oxenfree‘s thematic antecedent is most clearly the 2001 film Donnie Darko, a deeply existential teen time travel thriller.

Generically, then, Oxenfree is poised between science fiction and horror in a way that I think meaningfully impacts how it conveys is narrative through the medium of the videogame itself. Be warned that from this point forward, I’m going to discuss specific elements and details of Oxenfree‘s story, so if you haven’t played it and care about that sort of thing being spoiled, consider yourself warned.

Oxenfree is a ghost story, of a sort.  Edwards Island, the location of the game, is a lonely tourist trap and former military base where groundbreaking research on radio and communication was carried out during and after the Second World War.  Our protagonist and player character, Alex, travels to the island with her friend Ren, her new stepbrother Jonas, Ren’s crush Nona, and Clarissa, the bitter ex-girlfriend of Alex’s deceased older brother Michael.  This entire situation is quite understandably tense and awkward to begin with, but of course, it gets worse.

The island is notorious among local youth for the anomalies that can be heard over the radio from certain locations — things that range from numbers stations to what seems to be sourceless electronic voice phenomena.  While exploring a cave by the beach, Alex accidentally contacts something — manifesting primarily as hovering, flashing triangles and angry static — that separates the group and unleashes a lot of weird bullshit on the island in the form of uncanny recurrences and timeloops (that, from the player’s perspective, are indicated by the screen’s distortion a la a badly tracking analog tape).

So on the one hand yes, Oxenfree is a ghost story — the thing Alex has contacted turns out to be the collective consciousness of a submarine crew that was sunk by friendly fire off the island’s coast after the war.  But it is also a softly science fiction-inflected time travel story — the crew are called “ghosts” but in-game exposition suggests that they did not so much “die” as get shunted out of our “dimension” (ie, the normal space-time continuum) by the accidental detonation of the experimental nuclear reactor on their submarine.  Unmoored from the most basic laws of physics and temporality, the crew of the submarine have lost all notion of individual identity and claim to have watched the entire history of the world play out to its “demise” multiple times in multiple ways, and now long for nothing more than to find their way back into linear time by possessing Alex and her friends and living the existence they feel they have been denied.

For decades the crew has been contained in their dimensional warp, but Alex lets them out with the radio she brought to hear the island’s anomalies — “you tuned into our signal” they tell her.  And I want to think for a moment about the significance of the use of the radio here, and in particular what the game accomplishes by way of placing midcentury radio technology front and center in its supernatural shenanigans.

Media theorist and philosopher Eugene Thacker has outlined a taxonomy of what he calls “dead media,” “haunted media,” and “weird media.”  Dead media, he explains, are media where “the object is no longer in use, but the form of the object remains active” (“Dark Media — An Abbreviated Typology” 129).  The example he gives here is the Victorian-era magic lantern, a device which projected still images onto the surfaces of walls and was a common attraction in certain theaters.  We no longer use magic lanterns, but the basic operative principle still exists in the form of modern projectors.

“Haunted media,” meanwhile, are when a technology “is still in use, but in a non-normative way,” Thacker’s primary example here is “the complex interplay between the photographic camera and spirit photography in the late nineteenth century” (129).  Specifically, haunted media are noted in their “disjunction … between a contemporary artifact and its connection to adjacent fields such as religion and spirituality” (129), becoming almost darkly divine in their properties.

What haunted media do allow for, in imaginary and narrative terms, is the communication between two distinct ontological realms, this world and that one, the supernatural and the natural.  However, the other potential Thacker outlines is what he calls “weird media,” in which the “human sensorium can be augmented, transformed, or in some instances, ‘see’ more than a human subject is prepared to see” by way of some media object (132).  One example here is H.P. Lovecraft’s story “From Beyond,” where a scientist perfects a devices that allows human beings to see the various horrible creatures that exist alongside us, but outside our realm of sense perception, and which also (of course) drives people mad.

Unlike haunted media, which open up a portal between that world and this one, in weird media “mediation only results in an absolute impasse, in the strange non-knowledge of the impossibility of mediation, in the way that all communication collapses” (133).  In other words, weird media show us something, but something fundamentally flawed in its communicative result: we see something just doesn’t make sense, it is there and yet refuses to cohere into anything like purpose or meaning, and the result (as witnessed by Lovecraft’s characteristically fated protagonist) is the concomitant dissolution of all meaning.

The point I would make, first of all, is that these types of media are not necessarily distinct.  For instance, “spirit photography” existed more or less simultaneously with the beginnings of photography, with trick images appearing basically right out of the gate, rather than waiting for the medium to “die.”  In other words, a medium does not have to be dead, or close to dead, to be haunted; often they are born that way.  However, a medium’s proximity to death does seem to make it useful for stories of dark media — think here of the videotape in Ringu/The Ring, which appeared relatively close to the end of the lifespan of the VHS.

At the same time, the distinction between a haunted and a weird medium is not always terribly clear.  Thacker divides them based on a selection of narratives and, basically, how those narratives play out: is the end result communication or madness?  These distinctions, however, cannot always be made — and Oxenfree is exemplary in this regard.

Radio is not an entirely dead technology, of course, but it is certainly outmoded in the way the game presents it — weighted with the context of its development during the war, an idiosyncratic feature of the island and its particular history, etc.  At first we might say that the radio in Oxenfree is haunted, as it does what Thacker says haunted media do: it opens a portal, it brings this world and that world together, and so on.  And yet communicating with the other side is not easy, and for much of the game it’s not clear what Alex and her friends are dealing with or what it wants.

Furthermore, at various points in the game Alex becomes stuck in time loops, and must synchronize the music tracks playing on a series of ghostly Magnetophons in order to return to her proper temporality.  Just as the dead (?) submarine crew live on as garbled voices on the radio, so too are the lives of Alex and her friends mysteriously tied to the functioning of old military-issue tape players.  That is to say, they are themselves mediated by the island’s weird technology, sometimes skipping back into the past (where Alex can make decisions regarding her deceased brother that, it seems, are different than the ones she might have made before) or forward into the future where they witness deaths and suicides that never actually manifest in the straightforward plot of the game.

So while these media are a conduit for the dead past, they are also conduits for the present and a kind of undead future, possible futures, and possible pasts.  Any glance at a forum or subreddit dedicated to the game will show you they are filled with theorycrafters attempting to parse out the game’s timelines into something stable and coherent, something that can be charted in a sensible order that all adds up to a “point.”

This project is troubled by a few things about the game.  First, there are multiple endings, none of which are presented as particularly good or bad (and hence, “true” or “untrue,” since games so historically tie these judgments).  Alex’s relationships with her friends may strengthen or degrade, one of them may be sacrificed to the ghostly crew in order to placate them, her brother Michael may even be brought back to life through her interference with the timeline.  The game doesn’t pass judgment on you for any of these endings in the trite way we’ve come to expect of the medium: sacrificing Clarissa is not ideal, for instance, but given the absolute bugfuck nature of what’s going on it plays out as a kind of tragic necessity.  Similarly, bringing Michael back to life doesn’t result in some condemning “don’t play with the forces of causality!” message, it just… kind of happens.  At worst it rings hollow narratively just because we’re so used to seeing the condemnation of this sort of thing in other stories.  And similarly, if everyone survives and remains friends, well…

The game ends with Alex narrating “what happened next” for everyone like any good teen movie.  As I said, outside of being erased from existence, none of the end results for anyone are particularly “bad,” some are just sadder than others.  But in the final few seconds of her narration, the screen distorts again, and Alex resumes talking about how though she’s not looking forward going to Edwards Island, it may be a fun night.

No matter what you do, the game begins again.  Except, of course, if it doesn’t… completing the game unlocks a so-called “New Game+” option, where you are treated to a bonus opening scene of Ren, Jonas, and Alex hanging out waiting for their ride.  Alex uses her radio during this scene and receives a message from herself, warning her not to go to the island; if you choose to listen to her warning, the gang stays in for the night and the game ends, its entire plot summarily averted.

Now here’s the thing: at no point in the game you play can you make Alex deliver the message she receives in this bonus scene.  EDIT:  Zaratustra on twitter pointed out that if you complete the New Game+ as if it were a normal game, ignoring the warning, you actually do get the choice to deliver this message to a past Alex — that is, you can save an Alex you have not played from looping through everything.  You save someone, but not yourself.  You render everything you have just done meaningless (because it will never have happened) but also direly important (because it had to happen in order for it not to happen).

And this is how the game, to get to my point finally, collapses the haunted into the weird, because it’s not clear what is communicating here, and what or why it is even communicating.  The game recedes indefinitely into itself in a way that is not left for us to explore.  The addition of time travel (or, perhaps, the movement between distinct timelines, much like the submarine crew blasted outside of all continuity) means that what sometimes (in Thacker’s terms) operates as haunted media (communication between two ontological orders) also sometimes devolves into weird media (the transference of madness inducing nonsense, a kind of excess of information that makes coherence impossible).

In the end, there is a sense in Oxenfree that things are overmediated, too complexly bound up in each other, done and redone and undone, until all meaningful difference is lost in a sea of noise like the analog static the game deceptively renders on my digital monitor.  For at its most basic level, Oxenfree is a videogame that is making itself known to us as a videogame, as a site of weird media, or overmediation.

As I said, some media are haunted at their inception.  In Oxenfree this is especially true, encrusted as it is with the signifiers of analog media it has supposedly surpassed and rendered “dead” (and yet, what is my wi-fi connection but a sort of afterlife of the radio technologies developed by the island’s engineers?).  But more to the point, Oxenfree is suggesting that games as a medium are both haunted and weird, constantly warping between these two poles as they connect disparate orders of communication or devolve into madness-inducing nonsense.

I have written before about how haunting can serve as a vocabulary for how players experience gameplay.  Gameplay is always already underwritten by expectations mediated to the player by prior games, and by prior playthroughs of the same game.  In its turn to the weird, Oxenfree makes this point quite literal: at various points in the story, Alex is confronted by a ghostly version of herself in a mirror.  It speaks to her, giving her advice that seemingly makes no sense (for instance, telling her to advise Michael to break up with Clarissa, despite the fact that Michael is already dead).

This is the weird: communication that runs into the limit of intelligibility.  However, as the game progresses, it becomes clear Alex’s reflection is giving her advice about specific moments that take place later in the game.  In the climax of the game, Alex finds herself “on the other side” with the dead submarine crew, and in a series of vignettes is transported to shadow versions of various locations from the game where she provides advice to herself  — now on the other side of the mirror.  Communication between the natural and supernatural, between one timeline and another: what was weird becomes haunting.

But this is what is truly remarkable: you do not have to listen to the advice your reflection gives you, nor do you later have to give advice to your reflection that jives with (or departs from) your own actions in the game.  It is up to the player to decide how trustworthy their reflection is, and in the end, to decide how they might have done things the same or differently.

In fact, what happens is this: the game searches your friends list (through Steam or whatever service) to find people you know who have already played Oxenfree.  When you see Alex’s reflection early in the game, this person’s username appears above it in bright green text in a visual evocative of an MMO.  The dialog choices made at the end of the game by your friend (in my case, an Alex who was hilariously named “Chopper Dave”) are presented to you, and at the end of the game, your dialog choices are sent along to the next person in your social circle to play the game (so if you ever see an Alex named “Richard Plantagenet” — hi).

What Oxenfree quite literally enacts here is the haunting of gameplay: your experience of it always already bears the uncanny impression of a prior playthrough that was not yours, an attempt to communicate or give advice about how you should play the game.  But this communique is fraught by all manner of weird problems: first, you have no idea what is happening, and second, you might not listen.  Thus the haunting of gameplay again collapses into weird gameplay: not communication between or across playthroughs but the potential simultaneous existence of mutually exclusive in-game “realities” connected by their very refusal to resemble one another.

Oxenfree, then, is an apt demonstration for the horrific ontology of videogames.  Not only does Alex’s endless looping through the various endings suggest the idea of replay, the game itself metatextually and mechanically links these ideas, forcing us into an uncomfortable conceptual space that narratively challenges the ways by which we defend everything from the importance of individual identity to the very possibility of meaning-making.

Are we — the mass of players — meant to stand in for the lost crew who hope to find something like “life” in possessing these kids?  And what does it mean that the game in practice so intransigently deflects what the ghosts say they want: stability, continuity, identity, linear growth.  “Oxenfree” is, after all, a cry to end a game, to signal to the players that the game has finished.  But in Oxenfree no such ending is forthcoming, and we are left to confront how one can make meaning and find happiness in a weird, haunted, overmediated world.

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News from Cropshire on the Damnable Birth of a Cat & The Book of the Tower

What you’re about to read requires some explanation.

You may notice that the highest tiers of my Patreon mention a game on which I have been working, a fantasy-mystery-adventure called The Cropshire Pageant of the Incandescent Ascension, inspired by the work of Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Thomas Pynchon.  If my Patreon ever gets me super bucks, I’ll take the time to develop this game fully: it requires a lot of stuff and might be likened to an interactive novel, rather than the relatively short nature of my previous games.  In the meantime, I tinker on it, write some scenes, and so on.

One reason the game requires so much writing is that parts of it simulate the absolutely stunning and wonderful process of archival research, meaning I’m stocking a library of worldbuilding reading material a la The Elder Scrolls.  Below, then, are two in-universe “books” from the world of The Cropshire Pageant of the Incandescent Ascension.  They are very weird, because the fantasy world they take place in is very weird, but by placing these two stories together you may be able to get an idea of how, in some ways, this fantasy world is very similar to our own, somewhat similar to other fantasy worlds you may have experienced, and maybe also come to understand the ways in which it is profoundly different.

Enjoy!

News from Cropshire on the Damnable Birth of a Cat, or the Forces of Chaos Evidenced

In the late season of the year XXXXX, there was one Jack Rollin, a third-born serving-man to a certain House which will not be here named in the town of Northbrooke in Cropshire, who by report of sundry gave birth to a most damnable and monstrous cat. Being brought before the Tribunal in that town he gave witness that unto him that in dreams for several nights had come some strange black beast, like in figure first to a bear, then the following night much like a dog, and the night after like a cat, and on the next very much like man, though furred like a bear from the first, and in all these dreams these creatures had of his body carnal knowledge. He wept and wailed most piteously for he knew in his heart that these visitations were a device of Chaos and the Silent Emperor, this last form of the beast being one of that latter Fiend’s preferred bodies as is said among people of the lower sort. His stomach, he said and some attested, had swelled for only one week, making him much afraid, for as a third-born he and his wife and were by their families matched unfruitfully.

Mistakes in the case of matching occur, might say the unbelieving reader, and especially among those who stations mean they are less attuned to the ways of the Maker and the mysteries of generation. Yet the Tribunal conferred and because he was suspected of collusion with the Dark and Chaos by reason of this execrable birth, Jack Rollin was imprisoned in the Northbrooke gaol for a fortnight while his hideous progeny was taken by one Tribune, Edward Harper, for further study. The reader may remember similar tales of such monstrous births, such as the whelping of a pack of wolves to a wife in Madenbrough, or the old tale of the Vhenish King whose first-born was an awful creature without a head and a mouth and eyes in its chest, or some such similar thing, and yet did not die but walked about for six years with its limning drawn on its breast, and they may be incredulous as to how such events could transpire. But let it be remembered that the Canticles warn of creeping Chaos which comes to us at all moments and threatens to make indistinct the clear lines built since the Fall of the Tower.

Nevertheless, the Tribune Edward Harper, being suspicious of the provenance of this cat, took to a study of it to determine its nature. He found on his own another cat, from the streets of Northbrooke, and he keeping this cat and the other in wicker traps set to his investigation. The cat of the street was tawny in color and the cat born of Jack Rollin black, but in all other physical aspects they were quite similar, with the same pointed ears and six legs, though Rollin’s cat was a good deal smaller, being more newly born. Remarkable though were the eyes of this latter beast, which were a deep azure unlike the type normally seen in cats of any sort, and without the mark of seeing as present in the eyes of the other cat, whose eyes were the accustomed yellow or orange with a band of black in the center.

In dissecting the beasts Harper found them in all manner similar, with the same organs in the same configurations. Upon burning parts of the creatures however, Tribune Harper noted the cat from the street emitted a most noisome odor while the cat Rollin birthed was sweet like a perfume. This strangeness was noted by Harper, who then boiled the carcasses in separate pots and found they both emerged again in all respects similar with no difference in the manner of having boiled.

During this time Jack Rollin, being in prison, was put to question about his allegiance with Chaos and the Silent Emperor, but expressed only the most confusion and repentance, insisting he knew not why the strange visitations had come to him night and again of the evening nor why he birthed a cat. However, it is recorded in many learned ancient authors such as Marstain and Koja that the generation between men and beasts is possible, and indeed, the very Canticles themselves record such a scourge visited upon the Tribe of Agambus during the greater reign of Chaos (Gar. 3:12-21), and it is said the Envoi itself was a union of man and beast of a most terrible character. Chaos being formless takes all forms, and the Silent Emperor uses this to sow discord among us. It is obvious that in the visitations upon Jack Rollin the Silent Emperor took a variety of forms to find what best suited the organs of generation and chanced to made good on its evil errand in the form of the cat on the third night.

Tribune Edward Harper, finding nothing more to consider about the marvelous cat, advised that Jack Rollin should be released from his bonds upon proper penance, which being done with a cropping of his ears of either side to show his past indiscretion, he was released from gaol and returned to his wife. The House for which he worked was loathe to accept him back due to scandal but we have it on good authority he has found occupation elsewhere.

And let it be evidenced to the reader that Chaos works in all ways upon us, and the passageways it takes into our hearts might well be hidden even from ourselves. For why should such a visitation be placed on a man who otherwise seemed so undeserving? First, let it not be thought there is no one undeserving! For we were born from Chaos with the Silent Emperor who dwells there still. In recording reports of this news we have found several times the mention of Jack Rollin’s relation as a cousin to the notorious brigand and rake Namuth Rollin who stood with the rebel and witch Rattling Anne in her Cropshire rising. And so it is evidenced that Chaos works upon not only ourselves but in our children, and our children’s children, should these latter be so unfortunate as to be born with a human shape. It is only through the mercy of the Maker and the knowledge of Him that we are to be saved, and only through adherence to His laws and orders may we find respite from Chaos and the Silent Emperor. Amen.

 

The Book of the Tower, from the Canticles, Translated by EMH from the Vhenish Original, for the Edification of the People, in the year XXXXX

1. In the beginning, in the time of the First World, Man had within him as he does now the desire for order which is the mark of the Maker.

2. In the land of Sinab there lived a king called Cansa, who lorded over many tribes with incredible might. And this king thought himself a holy man and so commenced the construction of a Great Tower in the city of Yingho. Many of the vassals to Cansa gladly joined in the construction of the Tower, and others were put to work.

3. “The Maker is in the Heavens,” decreed King Cansa, “and this Tower will be our monument to Him, our bridge to His light.”

4. Thus for many years the Tower of Yingho was built, higher and higher into the sky to reach the light of the Maker. For three hundred years the Tower was built, and in the three hundred and first year it was finished.

5. For three centuries the greatest kings and lowliest chieftains, the wisest of the priests, and the most learned of the scholars had debated what would happen when the Tower finally reached the Heavens and Man was allowed to meet the Maker. But the Maker, seeing his people approaching, grew angry at their hubris: for the order He had decreed meant that He and Man must always be separate, for otherwise if they stood side by side what was to discern the Maker from the Made?

6. Now it came to pass that a king, a chieftain, a priest, and a scholar each was chosen by lottery to be the first to scale to the top of the Tower of Yingho and be the first to answer the questions that had plagued all Men for so long.

7. And what they found at the top of the Tower was nothing.

8. There was nothing at the top of the Tower, no sign of the Maker, for in His rage and shame He fled beyond the reaches of the Tower to the far side of Old Night. And this was where the king, the chieftain, the priest, and the scholar all found themselves, enveloped on all sides by the Dark, without the sound of their Maker’s voice, and all order crumbled. This was how Chaos first came into the world.

9. The scholar pondered the Dark of Night and Chaos and he decided that the Maker must be sought through further study of creation.

10. The priest pondered the Dark of Night and Chaos and he decided that the Maker must be sought through prayer and meditation.

11. The chieftain pondered the Dark of Night and Chaos and he decided that the Maker must be sought through hard work.

12. The king pondered the Dark of Night and Chaos, and he decided nothing. He heard nothing. And in that silence, Chaos spoke to him, and ate away his heart, until there was nothing inside him as well.

13. The king descended from the Tower, but no longer did he speak. He brought with him the eternal quiet from the Old Night, and this was how the Silent Empire was made: The king returned often to the top of the tower to listen to the quiet of the Dark, and each time he built the Tower taller and taller, until its shadow spread across the land from one side to the other.

14. The Silent Emperor, as now he was, moved his throne to the top of the Tower, and he lorded all the dominions of Man and fields of the beasts. Thus began a time of Chaos, when Man was cast so far outside the order of the Maker that he lived in black and white, and land and sea, and male and female were not known among them.

15. The Maker saw this Chaos and fled even further from his Creation, even as the Tower grew ceaselessly out in search of Him. The people held in bondage by the Silent Emperor knew not what they did, however, for they had been told this was the way of truth and life.

16. The people lived like this for three hundred years.

17. In the three hundred and first year, the Maker took pity, and deigned only to punish the Silent Emperor and his closest adherents, and He reached forth to forge the silver Rim of Heaven to hold back the further rush of Old Night.

18. In forging the Rim of Heaven, the Maker also crushed the many towers the Silent Emperor had built. And now he is frozen in the center of Old Night and Chaos, where he will remain for all time.

19. The chieftains of the earth, who were strong of heart and loved the Maker, gave thanks for their salvation. But because they had spent so long in Chaos, where black was white and land and sea were one and none knew male or female, they were burdened with the knowledge of their sin.

20. And so the Maker spoke to them, breaking through the silence in which He trapped the Emperor, and he said: “Sin and Chaos are not eternal, only I am Eternal; you may come unto Me when the world has again achieved order as I first gave it.” And they were glad at hearing this.

21. And from this day forth the scholar studied order.

22. And from this day forth the priest contemplated order.

23. And from this day forth the chieftain worked to build order.

24. And from the ranks of the chieftains rose new kings, who knew the Order of the Maker and shunned the Chaos and Old Night of the Silent Emperor. And Man lived in white, not black; Man lived on land, not in sea; and Man knew male, who was born first, and female, who was born second. And so it is.

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Loving and Alien: Mysterious Girlfriend X

Before I start talking about the 2012 anime series Mysterious Girlfriend X I need to make something particularly clear about my goals for my Patreon-funded criticism: I want to mean everything I say.  So me writing what I did about something as seemingly weird and inconsequential as Horse Diaries: Elska is not some grand ironic joke where I expend too much intellectual effort on parsing some cultural object.  Rather, my belief is that even the most minor artifacts will convey something illuminating about how media contribute in ways big and small to how humans understand themselves.

When it comes to Mysterious Girlfriend X I have a particular challenge, as someone who came of age on the internet in the early 2000s.  There was a time when you could generate content for a comedy website simply by, say, watching an anime or playing a visual novel and complaining constantly about just how fucking stupid and nonsensical it was because, hey folks, Japan Is Really Weird, Have You Noticed????  In the days before streaming video and YouTube and so on, we got our angry criticism through text: reading someone tell you about this absurd thing that happened in a bad anime they’re pirating and hate-watching gave you all the pleasure of knowing something about How Weird Japan Is without having to expend the effort to pirate the anime or buy the weird eroge yourself.

Discarding the hyperbole and refashioned orientalism of this critical outlook can be as simple as learning a few things about cross-cultural media, Japanese history, and not treating everything as symptomatic of some monolithic culture that is “Japan.”  Basically, the aim of your criticism should not be a demonstration of How Weird Japan Is.  That’s easy enough.  The problem, when we approach Mysterious Girlfriend X, a thirteen-episode anime based on a manga by Ueshiba Riichi, is that it is confoundingly weird.

Mysterious Girlfriend X (hereafter MGX) is a slice-of-life romantic comedy story about regular 17-year-old guy Tsubaki Akira, who in the first episode of the series tastes the drool of the strange new transfer student Urabe Mikoto when she falls asleep at her desk and leaves a puddle of it behind.  There is no particularly good reason for him to do this and even he questions why he did it after the fact.  However, Tsubaki becomes mysteriously ill shortly thereafter and, on a visit to his home to deliver his homework, Urabe explains that she knows he tasted her drool, and they are now “bonded” — essentially, he must regularly taste her drool or go into painful withdrawal.  Also, just incidentally, during her first day in class when Urabe suddenly broke into a fit of unprompted laughter that caused everyone to stare at her? She explains that’s because she heard a voice in her head that told her that Tsubaki was going to be the first person she would have sex with.  Okay.  From this point on episodes contain at least one but often multiple scenes of Urabe sticking her finger in her mouth, working up a gob of saliva, and feeding it to Tsubaki. Okay.

This constitutes the beginnings of them “going out.” One way I feel about Mysterious Girlfriend X is that it is a romance story written by an alien who has watched several other anime of a similar type about blooming first loves and tried to make its own but, in the end, lacks a kind of fundamental understanding of human emotions or embodiment.  Part of this is an effect of a weird symbolic overdrive the anime often leans into.  The “drool ritual,” as the two main characters call it, is exemplary in this regard, since we always get a shot of Urabe’s lips working around the end of her finger, see the finger emerge with a thick, gleaming, honey-like spit, and then she pops it into Tsubaki’s mouth while he closes his eyes in docile communion.

That this is a fractured, symbolic transposition of the sexual act is obvious.  The show isn’t trying to hide it; in a few instances where Urabe tastes Tsubaki’s drool (she is, incidentally, vaguely psychic and can read people’s thoughts through tasting their spit) he remarks on how the feel of her mouth on his own finger is “soft” and “wet” and so on.  Furthermore, most episodes feature a dream sequence where Tsubaki imagines himself and Urabe alone in a mildly threatening deserted themepark where geysers of some vague white substance erupt from oil rigs in the background.  Part of the “alien-effect” of the show, as we might call it, is precisely this unsubtle and yet consistently unerotic symbolic vocabulary the series develops, a symbolic vocabulary that is too obvious and hence ends up perversely estranging the very acts it is supposed to communicate obscurely, because it leaves little to no room between symbol and interpretation.

Imagine, for example, an American sex comedy film, where characters are constantly talking about sex, but every time they actually said “sex” or referenced genitalia or something their mouths instead emitted, say, a David Lynchian ambiance of throbbing machinery — and the film was otherwise normal.  What begins at first as confusion for the viewer (“Why are they just obviously censoring out the word ‘sex’ or references to genitals?”) gradually develops into the feeling that something more must be going on (“This is telling me something about sex!”) before finally collapsing in the face of hermeneutic exhaustion (“Nope, this is just sex, the intransigent, incomprehensible presence of sex in human life.”)

To be clear I am not arguing this kind of estrangement is intentional, exactly, that Ueshiba and the studio behind the anime set out to create a narrative about the intensely obscure and alien core of sexuality in human existence.  Indeed, the show is so conventional that it doesn’t quite seem aware of what it is doing.  Like the Twilight series, which is derided for its lack of strong plot in favor of parsing the emotional turmoil between Edward and Bella, MGX does more or less the same, but from the man’s perspective.  Tsubaki spends the first half of the series or so asking his more experienced friend Ueno about how relationships are “supposed” to work — how do you get to know each other, when do you hold hands, and so on — only to usually find out his relationship with Urabe is never progressing in a normal fashion.  A lot of screentime is devoted to him pondering his own emotions, and his desire for a bond with Urabe that is in some way normal.

Urabe herself has no desires for a conventional relationship, or much in the way of apparent desires at all, outside a generalized affection for Tsubaki that becomes more apparent as the series progresses.  Her one strong insistence throughout the show is that Tsubaki not hug her without her permission — doing so (as happens a few times) results in scenes where Urabe develops super speed, does some wild magical girl poses, and pulls a pair of defense scissors from the hemline of her panties (where she keeps them at all times).  Now, more needs to be said about Urabe: a vast number of her characteristics suggest she has Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Her hair is unkempt, often in her eyes, and this means she does not have to look directly at people; her affect is usually flat and matter-of-fact; she clicks her pen repetitively in class and seems to have no real sense of social decorum; and, as I just explained, uninvited physical affection overstimulates her to a stunning degree.  She has little ability to develop new interests outside of “scissors” (this is what she gives as her hobby when Tsubaki asks) and all of these features come together in Tsubaki’s choice to think of her as his “mysterious girlfriend.”

But Urabe also has some fascination with aliens.  A charm on her bookbag is a tiny UFO; her bedroom has posters on the wall for Roswell, New Mexico and the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, the location of the climactic alien visitation at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Does this suggest something like camaraderie?  Does Urabe perhaps see herself as similarly alien in social situations?  Is the flatness of her affect itself a kind of social performance, a mode of modulating stimuli that would otherwise overwhelm her, but which her classmates seem to understand and navigate with ease?

Yet when all is said and done, reading MGX as simply a story about a neurotypical guy working out his relationship with a girl with ASD is highly inadequate.  Part of this is because, while Urabe’s alien affinity might well be a sign of symbolic sympathy, we get no look at her interior life to confirm it; we quite pointedly never see much of her life, even her parents, though she mentions them occasionally and vaguely.  In the end it would be equally valid to interpret the various alien paraphernalia as suggesting that Urabe is literally extraterrestrial — after all, as far as I’m aware, people on the Autism Spectrum rarely if ever have magical drool that allows them to forge psychic links, or superhuman reflexes.  But again, such a reading is never confirmed: Urabe simply exists, and the show and its characters are never interested in asking more about her than that.

This is not necessarily empowering; she, along with the other female characters, are awkwardly fetishized by the camera and the male characters, who covertly take pictures and sell them to each other, discuss their relative breast sizes in the homosocial arena of the boys’ gym class, and so on.  Indeed, Urabe keeping her cherished scissors in the hem of her panties means that we are often treated to shots of her lifting her skirt to pull them out, which of course means we see her underwear.  Simultaneously, however, this fetishization is not free of the bizarre unsexiness I’ve already diagnosed in the show’s symbolic vocabulary.  What with the drool, the scissors, the panties, and the constant remarks about breast size, the show’s attempts to tap into more standard versions of the male gaze are always weirdly askew.

Freud — who was full of shit but will be useful here in a limited sense — believed that sexual fetishes resulted in the trauma of the young boy’s recognition of sexual difference.  That is, every boy thinks everyone has a penis, like him.  When he learns his mother doesn’t have a penis, however, he interprets this not as a born difference but rather as the result of the father’s castration of the mother.  Thus the penis becomes aligned with masculinity, power, and patriarchy while its loss or absence connotes subservience, a mark of shame and punishment, etc.  As Freud reckoned, a “healthy” man would eventually reformat his horror at the female genitalia into a desire; however, some people redirect their sexual attention not onto the proper object but a substitute — the woman’s shoe, her foot, her breasts, etc.  This, then, is Freud’s understanding of the fetish: it is a man’s method of attributing power to the woman (a “phallus”) symbolically, installing a hook onto which he can catch latch his desire and ignore the fact that the woman’s lack of a penis is a constant reminder of his own potential castration.

The line being spoken here is not from Tsubaki but Urabe’s female friend Oka, who has a very frank but nebulous attraction to Urabe. In the middle of the series they form their own drool bond but the representation of it fluctuates between between the sexualized version Urabe shares with Tsubaki and a more general female emotional intimacy. There’s a parallel argument to be excavated here about the mysteries of queer women’s intimacy (and its fetishization by a presumed male audience) but I’m not the person prepared to make it.

The problems with Freud’s argument here should be obvious and I don’t need to rehearse them, but I want to point out how weirdly apposite it is that Urabe keeps in the hem on her panties an object — her scissors — that function as a substitute phallus and as a reminder of the potential for castration.  In other words, even as the show wants the viewer to look at and fetishize her underwear, it juxtaposes her panties with the scissors, defusing any clean attempt to deflect Freudian castration anxiety (which, again, can be read broadly as male terror in the face of female sexuality and sexual difference).  Similarly, during the drool ritual, it is almost always Urabe who serves as the penetrative partner, conveying her spit into Tsubaki’s mouth.  It would be much simpler, of course, to just kiss — but they never do that.

The show’s vision of human sexuality is fractured.  On the one hand, there is a drive toward “regular” adolescent male horniness, a normative pattern of leering at girls and swapping stories about them before finding yourself in some regular pattern of development.  On the other hand, the actual plot of the show, insofar as there is a plot, deals with this normative drive running aground in unexpected ways on a girl who defies most normative demands.  Attempts to recapture her through fetishization — her drool, her panties — are always offset but a curiously terrifying sense of the fragility of the fetish’s process of redirection and substitution.

In the second episode Urabe leads Tsubaki into an abandoned building and makes him close his eyes.  She strips naked and, it is heavily implied, masturbates in front of him before having him taste her drool, which psychically communicates the arousal she feels for him.  But on top of that, this entire scene is intercut with shots of a dead beetle on the floor being eaten by ants.

This is MGX in a microcosm: a tortuously odd, awkward, sexualized situation that is limned with a kind of numinous dread.  What the drool ritual, like the physical act of sex itself, ultimately gestures toward is the weird lubricity and permeability of our bodies, even when we seem emotionally and mentally partitioned from one another.  And despite its glacial pace and, in the end, fairly conventional and somewhat unhealthy approach to how relationships “work,” what the show does that’s really interesting is press back on the normative drive just enough to reveal how our lives are shot through by others we don’t entirely understand, who are subject to inscrutable desires like we are, but whose manifestations of said desires never quite match our own: we all, in the end, are both loving and alien.

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The Pink Tricycle

Andrew did not see the pink tricycle the first or the second or even the third time on his way to the north side of the city. Indeed, he had been going to see his new therapist for well over a month before he noticed it, though he must have passed it many times.

What he had noticed were the apartment complexes: two of them, on either side of the road, abandoned. He had been living on the east side of the city for about a year and it was common knowledge by then that past a certain parallel and meridian the northeastern quadrant of the city fell over to perpetually hard times, more convenience stores than grocery stores, neighborhoods likely to shred your automobile tires with the scattered glass and rusted nails left in the roads where children played with (to Andrew’s thinking, at least) preternatural enthusiasm. So it was until one reached the north side which, due to the presence of the university and a shrewd and silent demographic agglomeration, remained one of the more vibrant sectors of the city, even after the factories left the rest quiet and searching decades ago.

Still, it was one thing to know the northeast side was rough. It was another to drive, for about thirty seconds, down a major artery of the city with the silent husks of abandoned apartment complexes hemming you in on either side. Andrew had noticed them because he basically had no other choice: the long, unkempt grass poked curiously through the iron bars of the enclaves’ fences, brushing the curb of the road like blind fingers; the buildings’ off-white walls were spotted, here and there, with large and generally unreadable names in audacious bubble-letter graffiti; on the first and second floors the windows and doors had all been sealed with plywood. Meanwhile the third stories — the complexes reached only that high, in each of their five or six buildings, and this still was a strange sight to Andrew, who came from a place where developments were often higher than they were wide — the third stories remained unbarricaded, dark and curtainless windows exposed to the world. Presumably the thought was whoever — squatters, looters, bored teens and general trespassers? — had the dexterity to climb to the second floor would not manage to make it to the third.

But it was on the third floor of one of the buildings to the right of the road that Andrew saw the pink tricycle. Each apartment in this complex had been furnished with a small patio area, a cement block on the ground floor and a wooden balcony about five or six feet long on the second and third floors. And on one of these wooden balconies, near the sliding screen door that led into the apartment, sat a pink tricycle of chunky plastic. A child’s toy, left behind.

That was as much thought as Andrew gave it, to begin with.

*

Andrew came to the city to work as a representative for a pharmaceutical company, and while the city itself was not in any sense an attraction, his job required him to travel across the country frequently, meaning the misfortune of living there was offset by the opportunity to leave it for weeks at a time. His therapist had remarked on the ease with which he’d transplanted himself during one of their early sessions, angling, Andrew suspected, for some sort of comment on his distance from his family.

There was not much to say. Andrew had an older brother who remained in close contact with his father, working alongside him at the contracting company that bore their name. His mother was dead, cancer in late middle age. He had never really known any grandparents or aunts and uncles, since his father’s volatility and general priggishness meant estrangements and fallings-out were common.

The therapist, a slight man with thin glasses, long black hair, and a seemingly endless supply of different argyle sweaters, took this all in and made notes on his clipboard. “I point this out,” he said, “because of what you told me during our first session.”

Andrew nodded. He had come to therapy because of what his ex had said. It was not his first relationship, but it was the one that had progressed the furthest, the first time since leaving home he had lived with someone other than incidental roommates. It had lasted fourteen months. “You never talk about the future,” was something the ex had often told Andrew, which seemed like a bizarre thing to notice, let alone complain about. “You never talk about the future, what sort of life we’re going to have.  I want to have a home with you.”  The ex, who had been taking psychology classes for a graduate degree while Andrew did an internship, was prone to pointing things out and rattling off symptoms of depression or anxiety. “You need therapy,” the ex had often said, which, in Andrew’s opinion, was a bit like a barber telling him he needed a haircut.

Still, when things ended after Andrew accepted the job with the pharmaceutical company out west, the ex had tearfully repeated the observation. “You need therapy.” Along with that: “You’re an asshole.”

And as he had settled into life in the new city, despite himself, Andrew began to wonder if perhaps his ex was not onto something. He sat in his new apartment downtown — paid for by his healthy new salary — and in its sleek, not-too-modern cleanliness it felt no different from the hotel rooms he stayed in every few weeks. His life, he began to feel, was for the foreseeable future nothing but traveling through a multitude of rooms with only minor variations, living from one to the next, living in between each room, and each fundamentally empty apart from himself. He spent several long evenings reading about depression symptoms on the internet and eventually made an appointment with the therapist in the north of the city.

He wasn’t sure if he was making progress, but it at least felt like something to do. Of course he went out to bars and met people, schmoozed with clients and rivals while on his trips, but when he was home he felt listless, and therapy provided a kind of ritualistic element to his life, something to mark the passage of time. In the first few meetings he talked about the ex, and what the ex had said, which led him to talking about his father, his brother, his mother. College, prior exes, the first big falling-out with his parents just before graduation. Half-remembered childhood anomalies, like the time he was certain he saw his father leave the house late at night — far past midnight — and, standing in the yard, click a flashlight on and off in sequence, pointing it into the moonless sky. His brother had insisted he was merely misremembering a scene from a spy film they had watched together as kids. It was almost overwhelming, Andrew thought, how much he could say about himself and yet how little he felt actually happened. “I suppose I don’t think about the future very much,” he said once. “I’m not sure I’m looking forward to it. I’m not sure I ever have.”

His therapist remained placid, and marked something on his clipboard.

*

He was on his way to therapy when he noticed the pink tricycle had moved. At first he thought he was merely misremembering. After all, as he zipped by the abandoned building, how certain could he be that he knew where the tricycle had been on the wooden balcony? But as he considered the situation he became less certain.

Andrew’s initial vision of the pink tricycle, pushed into the corner of the balcony, had been initially burned into his mind in a peculiar way. On and off again he’d found himself returning to it, thinking of the child it had once belonged to and imagining their feelings upon it being left behind. He wondered at odd times — usually when making dinner, or just on the edge of falling asleep — about the family who had lived in the apartment, taking everything but the tricycle.

And now the tricycle had moved across the balcony, pressed up against the screen door of the apartment as if it were an animal begging to be let in. After his therapy appointment, on his way home, Andrew made sure to keep an eye out for the tricycle. He was on the opposite side of the road now, making it difficult, and the sun was setting, but he managed to spot it: a flash of color against the dingy walls and gray shingles. It was exactly where he’d seen it earlier.

The apartment complexes did not have names. Unlike most places of the sort, which had signs out front welcoming you to Green Brook Place or Heritage Estates or Brookstone Commons or The Meadows at Green River or something, the chained-off entryways of either complex had no such signage, presumably taken down whenever the properties closed. When, back home, he searched online for apartments along that particular segment of the street, he found no listings, not even legacy postings regarding the complexes.

When he pulled up a street view he could see them, looming on either side of the road. The complex to the left was obviously closed at this point, its windows boarded up, but its grass was shorter, its buildings less etched over with graffiti. On the right side of the street, however, the buildings of the other complex had not yet been sealed. Andrew clicked forward, searching for the balcony that he knew hosted — or would come to host — the pink tricycle.

The balcony was bare, but the sliding door was open, allowing just the barest glimpse into the apartment, a sliver of a kitchen and a refrigerator. He clicked forward again, finding the entrance to the complex and its sign: Homes at Roselawn. He checked the date on the street view images and found they were nearly three years old.

A search for “Homes at Roselawn” turned up nothing interesting, only what would be expected of an apartment complex in that area of the city: occasional mentions of domestic disputes, a methamphetamine arrest, one fatal shooting and one non-fatal. There was no mention of when or why it closed. It was if the complex had just, one day, shut down, without any reason, announcement, or fanfare. Andrew imagined the family leaving the third floor apartment in a hurry, evicted without notice, and imagined the wailing of a child whose favorite tricycle was left behind.

*

The pink tricycle moved twice more over the next few months, from the screen door back to the far corner, and then from that corner to the opposite end of the balcony.  The weather, by this point, was beginning to change, the grass browning and wilting and the sky shifting to a perpetually dreary gray that threatened snow but only spat chilly rain.

It was probably squatters, Andrew told himself.  Someone had broken in and was living in the closed apartments illegally.  Certainly someone was living there: incidental vandals or addicts would probably do more than move a child’s toy across a balcony every handful of weeks.  Did they have a child with them?

He left a little early before therapy once to stop by the apartment and find out.  When he asked himself what he was doing — which he felt was a question posed more and more frequently these days — Andrew decided that he would, if the squatters were willing, help the occupants of the apartment find legal housing.  His job certainly paid him more than enough to meet his own needs.  Maybe he could do something with himself by helping someone else.

Andrew parked his car alongside the driveway of the abandoned complex.  The chain across the driveway meant he couldn’t go further than what was basically the shoulder of the road, but it was enough space that he didn’t fear any passing motorist would clip him.  It was only after he ducked under the chain and started walking toward the building with the pink tricycle that it occurred to him there wasn’t a no trespassing sign posted.

Suddenly he wasn’t sure if the complex was out of commission.  What if he was totally wrong?  What if families were living here, legally, behind these plywood boards?  The idea seemed absurd but not impossible.

And yet the doors were also boarded over.  He saw that now, very clearly: as he continued to walk across the overgrown, dying lawn Andrew passed the shuttered windows and doorways that showed barely any evidence of human attention.  Indeed, the doorway to his goal — the building with the pink tricycle — was likewise boarded up, with no sign of tampering.  He took a walk around the building, finding a fire exit on the far side away from the road, which was also sealed.

In reality, Andrew thought, there was surprisingly little to indicate that anyone — even the homeless or vandals — had visited this place since it closed, whenever it did close.  Because it was assuredly closed, lack of a trespassing sign or not.  He strolled back around the building, listening to cars zoom by on the road, and stopped by the corner of the building directly below the balcony with the pink tricycle.  He looked up at it, noticing for the first time how bleached its plastic was by the elements.  Had it even been pink originally?

He stared up at the balcony for a few more moments, his eyes drifting toward the sliding doors — the third floor hadn’t been boarded up, he thought.  So what if someone did climb up there?

Andrew gritted his teeth, suddenly unnerved by the fact that he couldn’t see into the dark apartment.  He remembered the image from the old street view: the screen pushed aside, a dim light within, kitchen linoleum, the glare of a refrigerator door.  Now there was nothing.  Just shadow.  Someone could be watching him and he wouldn’t even know it.

He turned and quickly walked back to his car.

*

“May I ask you something?” his therapist said, looking at him thoughtfully.  “Just to clarify my notes.”

Andrew shrugged.  “Sure?”

His therapist glanced at his clipboard.  “When did your mother switch jobs?”

“What?” Andrew frowned, not understanding the question.

“Your mother switched jobs,” said his therapist, looking at his clipboard.  “During one of our early sessions you mentioned she was a nurse.  You said both she and your father worked days.  But some things you’ve told me indicate she started working nights — and hiring babysitters, correct?  Where was your father during this?”

Andrew blinked.  His mother was a nurse? That… seemed right.  And his father… very little came to mind when he thought about his father.

“I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” said Andrew.

His therapist made an oddly defensively gesture with his shoulders.  “Nothing, nothing, I’m just trying to straighten out the order of events.  Your family is where you learn many of your coping strategies that manifest — sometimes problematically — later in life.  And based on what you’ve told me your family had a bit of a crisis when you were around eight years old.  You even moved out of the house.”

“Excuse me?”

“The apartment,” said his therapist, again looking at the clipboard.  “Your mother switched jobs and you lived, for a while at least, in an apartment.  Unless I got something wrong?”

“That…”  Never happened, is what Andrew wanted to say, but suddenly he wasn’t so sure.

His therapist waited a moment.  “Dissociation,” he said, finally, “often begins as a defense mechanism…”

Andrew didn’t hear the rest.

*

Andrew was due to fly to Dallas the next week for a presentation, but he called into work with the flu and said he wouldn’t be able to make the flight.  He took the week off.

He wanted to talk to his brother but when he called it went to voicemail.  “Hey,” he said, “it’s Andrew.  Do you remember when Mom started working nights?  When was that?  Anyway, give me a call.”

A new prescription sat on his kitchen counter, unfilled.  On a whim he skipped his next appointment with the therapist and received an irritated text message about a fifty-dollar fee, but by then he had been parked outside the former Homes at Roselawn for nearly an hour.  There wasn’t a no trespassing sign, so it wasn’t like anyone would have any reason to tell him to leave.

Still, though, he had to be careful.

Finally, as the sun dipped down and the corona of the city’s streetlights grew up in the sky, Andrew got out of his car and walked across the overgrown lawn of the apartment complex, the crowbar swinging easily, even naturally by his side.

It turned out to be unnecessary.  The plywood that had covered the door to the building he approached was gone, a small halogen light glowing over the concrete stoop.  Looking from side to side, thinking at any moment now someone might step out of the dark to stop him, Andrew met no resistance and finally pushed forward and opened the door.

The center of the building was a wood-paneled column containing a zig-zagging stairway.  The air had a dusty, stale quality and at least a few sheets of the paneling had fallen away, revealing the flattened streaks of glue on the wall beneath like keloid scars.  Somewhere he could hear the low thrumming of machinery, like a laundry dryer.  Somewhere else was the sound of laughter, clearly filtered through a television speaker.

The stairway was covered by a ratty carpet that did little to muffle the sound of Andrew’s crowbar when he dropped it and it skittered down to the nearest landing.  He reached the third floor and paused, looking from the left to the right to orient himself.  Each floor had four apartments, set up in quadrants around the central staircase.  Ahead and to his right, a door stood open, waiting.

He walked inside the apartment, not bothering to close the door behind him.  the only source of light was a dim, bare bulb overhead.  He was in a living room, furnished only by a couch with a severe dip in the middle situated before a TV with a dead, dark screen, and a card table with folding chairs arranged around it.  To his left was a hallway leading, he thought, to a bedroom and bathroom.  To his right an arch opened onto the small kitchen, and just beyond that, the sliding door to the balcony.

“You’re late,” said a voice.

Startled, Andrew turned from the kitchen — he’d been walking toward the balcony, he realized — and saw a woman standing at the mouth of the hallway, hurriedly putting on silver earrings.  She was a black woman, and older than him, but not by too much.  Maybe she just looked older than she was.  She wore a knee-length dress of medicinal green with a white apron folded over the front and a wide, white collar, and he recognized it as a curiously antiquated waitress uniform.

“I’m already running late,” she said, “but you should know what to do.”

“Excuse me?” he asked.

“You’re the new babysitter, yes?” she said, eyeing him severely.

He had no idea what to say to that.

“It’s self-explanatory,” she said.  “Food in the fridge, TV is mostly busted but gets a few channels.  You’ll be fine.  The child is out now, but will be back soon.  Babysitting, not rocket science.”  The woman had finished with her earrings and, after adjusting her hair, began to stride quickly toward the door.

“Wait,” Andrew said, more loudly than he meant to, and the woman stopped to look at him again, tiredly.  “Where is your…”  He struggled to articulate the idea, because she herself had phrased it so oddly.  The child.  “Where’s your kid?”

The woman cocked an eyebrow at him.  “Out playing,” she said.  “Always out playing.  And it’s not my child.  I’m just the last babysitter.”

And with that she left the apartment, closing the door behind her, and Andrew was alone in the room.

He stood for a moment in the light of the bare bulb, surveying again his surroundings.  He pulled his phone out of his pocket to see if his brother had called him and, somehow, it was dead.  He hadn’t brought a charger.

The kitchen light still worked, and when he flipped it on the glare rendered the balcony door nothing but a dark mirror.  He stepped forward, pulling it away, and felt the unusually warm, almost summery air come flooding into the apartment through the screen.  Across the street, in the other complex, he could see someone mowing the lawn in the fading twilight.  He recalled hearing that twilight was the best time to mow in the summer.

The pink tricycle was barely visible in the dark corner of the balcony, but visible nonetheless.  After regarding it for a moment Andrew grabbed one of the folding chairs from the living room and placed it in the kitchen, where he could sit and keep an eye on the balcony.

And the tricycle.  Especially the tricycle.  He settled in to wait and see what, if anything, would cause it to move.

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HeyRyde

 

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Most positive

Andy McBarr – October 12, 2014
5star

 

When I first heard our local governments had cut a deal with the Usher company for this app idea I admit I was pretty skeptical.  I’ve heard a lot of stuff about the company and its founder and I thought it would just be no good, I used to think ridesharing services only made sense with big cities.  But on the other hand, ever since the problems in Haymeadow and then Whitbridge, our communities haven’t really been themselves.  The difficulty of finding quality hayrides as more and more people moved away was becoming apparent and I was starting to think I’d have to move too.  But then the Usher company came to the rescue with HeyRyde!! The app is still in the testing stages right now and our little towns are the testing grounds.  Need a hayride? Then download HeyRyde (lol!!) and request a ride from one of the local independent providers!  Just about everyone still in the business is working with the app, which makes it super convenient.  My first driver was from Whitbridge, which as a lifelong Haymeadow resident I was skeptical of, but he turned out to be really nice.  I think this app will bring our communities closer together, which is important given all the struggles we’ve had.  Also, they don’t tell you this in the app description, occasionally you’ll put out a call for a hayride and get one of their experimental self-driving wagons!

Erica Nicholson – October 16, 2014
5star

 

Our kids were upset because our dog and cat ran away, so the hubby and I decided to cheer them up with a little hayride!  I’d recently downloaded this app and thought it was a perfect opportunity to try it out.   What a great idea!  Our driver was a local man who was giving out hayrides to make some extra cash.  He was very friendly and even had a cooler of apple cider in the back.  Kids loved it!

Gregory Chunch – October 20, 2014
5star

 

It’s been depressing in the greater Whitbridge-Haymeadow area lately, after the riots and the fires over the past few years, but with the Usher company setting up shop in town I feel like things are finally turning around!  It’s so charitable of a big Silicon Valley company to come all the way out here to help us make ends meet.  I haven’t actually used this app but I think it’s a great idea, and I’m going to help keep the market competitive by starting my own hayride app.  Keep an eye out for Wagyn, coming soon to an app store near you!!

Amir Brooks – October 23, 2014
5star

 

Extremely impressed by the self-driving wagon that picked us up for our ride.  There weren’t even any horses! Whatever mechanical wizardry is keeping the wagons going is perfectly hidden, it otherwise looks exactly like an old farm’s hay wagon.  We took a nice ride up around north Whitbridge and everything was lovely, my date loved the colors of the leaves and it was nice not having a driver there to intrude on the moment.  When I called the Usher offices to tell them what a great innovation the self-driving wagons are I ended up talking to a woman (Charlotte) who played dumb and said the company doesn’t have self-driving wagons but I know how the tech world is, they’ve got to keep this under wraps unless a competitor steals the idea.

Alain Hardy – October 30, 2014
5star

 

the ride has been going on so long so long it’s wonderful so wonderful i never want it to end hay so itchy

Tanya Greer – October 31, 2014
5star

 

What a great experience!  Taking a leisurely hayride through Haymeadow during trick-or-treating was a perfect way to spend the holiday.  The driver even surprised us by taking us across the river into Whitbridge — at no extra charge!  It was great to see how they celebrate Halloween, even if normally I’d not want to expose my children to the snobbery of people who live there.  When I told the driver he didn’t have to bother, he said he felt like he didn’t have a choice.  How nice of him!

Nancy Whittiker – November 5, 2014
5star

 

Here’s a little thing that I guess you could call a “lifehack” — gas has been so expensive lately that driving to and from work (I work in Whitbridge but live in Haymeadow) has gotten too expensive, but for the past month I’ve been ordering hayrides to get me where I need to go and it’s been wonderful! I’m on a first-name basis with a few of the drivers now.  It takes longer, sure, but if I plan ahead I can get to work and home without ever having to use my own car.  I wonder if the service will go past the normal hayride season or if I’ll have to go back to driving myself?  Here’s hoping!! :-)

Xander Harris – November 13, 2014
5star

 

I’ve heard the Usher company is in negotiations with both the Haymeadow AND Whitbridge town boards to take over operation of public transit for the entire county.  As a libertarian, I can think of nothing better for the economy of this region — even if I wish we didn’t have to deal with those scrubs over in Haymeadow constantly crowding our wagons.  Anyway, that’s actually the beauty of the free market: if enough of us demand separate services we’ll eventually get them.   I’ve loved the hayrides I’ve been taking and can’t wait to see how a stronger Usher influence in local government turns our little corner of southern Indiana into a center of 21st century industry!

Alessa Donovan – December 5, 2014
5star

 

I have no idea why this app is still offering rides in December but I love it!  It was so nice taking a hayride through the first snowfall of the year.  It tells you something that the drivers love their job so much that they’re keeping this going year round!

Travis Wexler – January 2, 2015
4star

 

With the new year we’ve seen the launch of a second hayride app in the Haymeadow-Whitbridge area, but the original is still the best!  My driver was pleasant and talkative and even offered some warm cider.  It could have been warmer, but that’s the only criticism I can come up with about this great service.

Casey Starr – February 9, 2015
4star

 

My car broke down a few weeks ago which means I couldn’t get to work, but this app has been a lifesaver!  It’s also such a pleasant way to get around.  One of my drivers even said that you don’t even have to have your own horse and wagon anymore, Usher will lease them to you.  Maybe I’ll take up a little side job!!

Least positive

Karin Hedley – January 7, 2015
1star

 

Who wants a hayride in January?  Well I was curious so I called one up.  I recognized the woman who gave me the ride as one of the ladies who works the checkout at Wal*mart and I asked her how she liked the job and she said she hated it shed never worked with horses before and I asked her why she was doing it and said she didnt have a choice she needed the money.  I said maybe you could get another job and she just started crying.  Extremely unpleasant.

Melvin Lowe – February 28, 2015
1star

 

Unreliable drivers.  Will often take weird routes and detours that make the commute too long and you end up late to wherever you’re going.  Wagyn (locally owned) is a much better alternative.

Norbert Pflum – March 5, 2015
1star

 

My driver was obviously drunk and drove our wagon straight into the Juggascrow War Memorial in downtown Haymeadow.  Driver incoherent.  Awful.  Talked with Charlotte Raith in Usher Customer Service who arranged a refund for the ride, one bright spot.

Darcy Metcalfe – April 11, 2015
1star

 

Had a weird issue where the GPS stopped working and the driver got lost.  We ended up out on some country road and we could see the mansion the Usher guy built at the old quarry and these big black dogs came out and followed the wagon really close.  Didn’t growl or bark or anything, just followed.  My son was crying and it was definitely getting to the driver but he was so scared of the dogs!  Where did they even come from?  I thought all the dogs in town ran away months ago.

Tater Breyer – May 18, 2015
1star

 

I’ve used Wagyn from Chunch Technologies before and loved it, but since they sold out to HeyRyde after the founder passed away I don’t have another option and I HATE this!!  The drivers are always surly and won’t talk to you and if they do usually it’s weird stuff you don’t want to hear and don’t even get me STARTED on the self-driving wagons which the offices say they don’t have but then why do they keep showing up??? Usher is a bad company.  Instead of taking me where I want to go the self-driving wagons will just go out onto country roads for hours on end and i can’t stop them whenever i call up a hay ride and one of the self-driving wagons shows up i don’t get on anymore even though they sit outside my house for like an hour.  Would like an update where you can choose to not get a self-driving wagon

Carol Jordan – June 20, 2015
1star

 

For over 35 years my father worked as a chemistry teacher at Haymeadow High School (Go Ravens!) and just retired at the end of this last schoolyear.  He felt bored with the new downtime and figured that driving for HeyRyde would be a low-stress hobby that he could also get paid for.  I didn’t like the idea of him working a job in his retirement but he was insistent!  Well he started driving for them a two weeks ago and the shifts just kept getting longer.  Last time he was out for almost an entire day and came back at three in the morning (he moved in with us after he retired).  When he’s home he just goes into our spare bedroom and sleeps.  I’ve told him he doesn’t have to keep doing this but he won’t listen.  I hate this app!!

Angela Legg – July 5, 2015
1star

 

i took a “fourth of july” hayride which was an awful idea. it was hot and itchy and the driver wouldn’t stop so i could get a drink, he just kept saying “we have to follow the route.”  i was so thirsty i came close to having a heatstroke i was hallucinating that the road was glowing like bright red and the horses had too many legs. i don’t recommend using this app but if you do at least bring your own drinks that’s what i’m doing when me and my friends do our bastille day hayride next week.

Dusty Moller – July 8, 2015
1star

 

My daughter sank into a pile of hay in the corner of the wagon and we couldn’t find her for almost five minutes.  Eventually we managed to dig her out but now she has a really bad case of lice.  The driver didn’t even care.

Louis Caulfield – July 16, 2015
1star

 

I wanted to have a pleasant Bastille Day hayride, but there were a bunch of Haymeadow bumpkins on my wagon who wouldn’t stop asking me what Bastille Day is so I had to sit very uncomfortably while they read the explanation on the back of my Happy Bastille Day t-shirt.  Very annoying.

Joe Samson – September 8, 2015
1star

 

Got stuck on a group ride with a bunch of uppity Whitbridge folks and some annoying teens (also probably from Whitbridge, they were vaping).  They spent the entire part of the ride that took us through Haymeadow talking about how our sidewalks were dirty and that our street signs were hard to read.  When the ride finally turned around and took a country road into Whitbridge (I didn’t want to go but the driver couldn’t stop) I started talking really loudly about how their giant street signs make it look like a town where only old people live, but I was the only person there doing it and everyone just stared at me.  I hate Whitbridge folks.

Patricia Azikiwe – October 11, 2015
1star

 

I wish the town boards had better negotiated that public transit deal with Usher because after a year of nonstop hayrides they just don’t seem that special, even when they’re seasonally appropriate.

Tara McIntyre  – October 31, 2015
1star

 

self-driving wagon would not let me or my son off to trick or treat, just drove back and forth for three hours i had to buy candy for him from the store later. also i think the hay gave us both lice

Jackson Liu – November 7, 2015
1star

 

People love to say ridiculous stuff about services like this, like my friend who swears his sister took a HeyRyde and never came home, but that’s such bull**** when there are so many real things to complain about.  Moldy hay, ridiculous pricing even though it’s after Halloween, and the wheels of the wagon were making this weird squeaking sound that the longer I listened to the more it sounded like someone screaming.  Oh also the ride lasted way too long and I started having weird f***ed up thoughts in case that wasn’t obvious!

Maria Kendal – November 21, 2015
1star

 

I live on the Haymeadow-Whitbridge border and it’s hard to sleep with the wagons running by my house all night.  Who’s even riding them so late?  They just keep coming and going from that weirdo’s mansion at the old quarry.

Gene Kim – January 23, 2016
1star

 

I was in the area on a business trip, doing some negotiations with Usher, and decided to check out this service.  I will say, I immediately called my home office and told them we should scuttle any partnerships — everyone knows the founder of Usher has some idiosyncrasies but this whole HeyRyde thing is something else! Even though everyone talks about these wagons being self-driving these days I had a deeply unpleasant driver, an old man in a large straw hat and ragged overalls, smelled like he hadn’t washed in weeks  He never looked at me or acknowledged me, but  he just stared ahead and kept moving his hands like he was leading horses.  But there weren’t any horses!!

Xander Harris2 – February 16, 2016
1star

 

I know I’ve reviewed this app before and positively, but I just want to say that I take it back totally.  The founder of Usher, despite his admirable libertarian principles, has proven to be all talk, interfering with the free market by buying out his competitor Wagyn and letting the monopoly of his brand result in subpar service.  I’ve tried calling the Better Business Bureau (much to my shame) but ever since Usher bought all the cell towers in the county the calls just redirect to their help line.  And the local government is backing them every step of the way!! This isn’t capitalism, it’s corporatism!!!! BOYCOTT

Brynne Landau – April 6, 2016
1star

 

I don’t even know what the point is anymore. Why leave a review? The service sucks. Wagons don’t go where you need them to.  Have to deal with hicks from Haymeadow sharing your rides, and the nightmares, dear god, the nightmares

Most recent

Charlotte Raith – October 28, 2016
nostar

 

I must admit I was skeptical when I was told we would be setting up a Midwestern office, and in rural Indiana of all places.  Why?  My supervisor at the time, who was in direct communication with someone who was in turn in direct communication with the CEO, told me many things about untapped markets, civic duty to under-served areas and populations, all what one might expect.

I was disappointed when I was told that I would be moving here to oversee operations in a new division of my old department.  It was hard to say goodbye to California, even harder to adjust to these small, indolent towns and their insolent people.  There are strange rivalries here that an outsider would not and cannot understand, long-simmering resentments, and the trauma of recent tragedies.  This is to say nothing of the absolute obsession these people have with Halloween.

Over the past two years the situation has progressed… strangely.  Our CEO, a recluse at the best of times, has become almost a total non-entity.  The media speculates as to his activities and his mansion, which he had built on a small limestone cliff between these two small towns, sees no visitors, though the windows of the upper floors still glow orange at night.  Meanwhile, reviews of our services have degenerated.  And even then — people continue to use our app.  Revenues are on a steady increase.

I admit I’ve been letting my work for the company slide as I’ve watched this situation develop.  I’ve been spending a lot of time in the libraries in both towns.  I drive myself, of course, I do not take the wagons.  Most of them are self-driven these days.  I do not recall a company memo about when we made the switch, but surely there must have been one.

Anyway.

I’ve been looking at old maps, studying divisions platted by this region’s settlers nearly three hundred years ago.  I’ve been reading books.  Very strange books.  I’ve learned what ley lines are.  And I suspect there was a reason the founders divided this land the way they did.  But I’ve also been tracking the wagons.

There is a pattern forming.  The paths crossed once and over again by our company’s vehicles are knitting together two towns that, for centuries, have been held apart.  I am not a superstitious woman, but I have heard the rumors about our CEO and his interests — who could forget the sensational quote about drinking human blood — and I am beginning to wonder what his plan is for this operation.  I have my suspicions, but they are suspicions only.  I write this in the hopes that someone, anyone, especially someone outside these towns might read it.  I fear the worst.

I’ve made the decision to close my office for the day.  I’ve called my ride.  His gate only opens for the automated wagons these days.  The assortment of objects in my briefcase boggles my mind, even though I chose them — placing the of vial holy water next to the stun-gun, the box of purified salt next to the unregistered Glock — but time is short and I must have options.

The end is coming, first here, and then perhaps everywhere.  And we were its Ushers.  Forgive us.  The road to Hell is subject to surge pricing, and we’ve made a tidy profit.

The previous entries in the Haymeadow saga are here and here. This post was funded by readers like you through Patreon.  If you like what you read, want to see me write more, and want to get a chance to choose what I write about, please consider pledging.

Horse Diaries: Elska and Transhistorical Animal Affect

This post is funded by readers like you through Patreon.  If you like what you read, want to see me write more, and want to get a chance to choose what I write about, please consider pledging.

Elska by Catherine Hapka is the first entry in a series of young reader books called Horse Diaries and takes place, as the back cover tells us, in “Iceland, circa AD 1000.”  The first thing I want to make clear is that the series title of Horse Diaries is exceptionally, perhaps surprisingly, literal: this book is written from the first-person perspective of an Icelandic horse in the year 1000.

If this description makes the book sound bizarre, I assure you it is.  But we have to keep in mind here the target audience (readers from ages 8-10, probably) which to some extent explains why Elska, despite being a horse from a millennium ago, narrates her story like an Icelandic tour guide, dropping facts about geography and fjords (one of the first things she tells the reader is how the Icelandic seasons and day-night cycles differ from the weather in temperate climates, because of course a newborn horse knows these things).  But this generosity of information on her part is why it’s also so interesting that Elska never really explains the workings of the medieval human society with which much of the book is concerned.

A digression: Icelandic horses are a particular and highly specialized breed, due to Iceland’s geographical isolation.  They are gaited, which means that in addition to the normal strides of a horse (the walk, trot, canter, and gallop) they have an additional pace called the tölt, which looks weird as hell.  This is not something they’re trained to do, but something they do naturally. I just felt you should see that.

The events of the book encompass probably a decade in the span of 100 generously spaced pages, which make it an exceptionally brisk read.  It begins at the moment Elska is born while her herd is wandering the Icelandic wilderness during the spring and summer months.  Eventually, the tribe of humans to which her herd belongs come along to gather them for the rettir, the annual Iceland sheep round-up.  The word rettir is used extensively and never explicitly defined (if you discount the short appendix of “Iceland Facts” at the very end) which is a pretty good illustration of how, while the book obligingly drops information about Iceland’s climate and the differences between varying horse breeds, it remains intriguingly vague about how or why the humans do anything they do.

Elska is part of a herd owned by a family with a young daughter named Amma, whose immediate fondness for our narrator sets up the arc of the plot.  We know how this story goes: a child and an animal have a special bond, they are arbitrarily separated by an unjust force, they pine for one another, and after some strife are eventually are reunited.  In this case Amma discovers that Elska is a very fast horse and perfect for racing, which catches the eye of the son of Alfvaldr, a neighboring farmer.  Due to some nebulous debt owed to Alfvaldr by Amma’s dad, Elska is given to the former as a gift, confusing Elska considerably.  That night she jumps the fence at the new farm and runs home.

Amma is overjoyed, of course, but when Alfvaldr and his son come calling there are surprisingly dark shades to note. Alfvaldr thinks Amma stole the horse, and her father asks her, “Are you trying to cause a blood feud between Alfvaldr and me?”  Amma’s father manages to placate Alfvaldr by regifting Elska plus a few other livestock, and Elska, upon her return to Alfvaldr’s farm, is informed by her new herd that staying with them is in the best interests of Amma.  I want to take a moment to consider the casual drop of the “blood feud” here, which, like rettir, is never explained or defined (and in this case, doesn’t even show up in the appendix).

Elska mentions a couple of times that she does not understand human language, which of course raises a whole host of questions about how she is telling her story in human language and recounting entire conversations between humans that she apparently doesn’t understand.  Such niggling is pedantic, of course, but what’s curious is that within this narrative device — a non-linguistic narrator — Hapka seems to reproduce in a small degree the narrator’s lack of language by presenting the reader (again, an 8 to 10 year old child) with a society whose laws and customs are never explained.  So a child reading this book is probably not going to know what a “blood feud” is particularly, but they sure as hell are going to know that it sounds bad, even though Elska herself doesn’t think much of it.  Similarly, the other horses’ intimations of the consequences of Elska returning home a second time suggests to her and the reader obliquely the horrifying potential of the “blood feud.”

It seems perhaps inevitable that a story about a horse and its interactions with humans would be about biopolitics, the way life and death and the things that live and die flow and are funneled through the channels of the social apparatus.  Elska’s significance to the humans is as a racer, as an object for trade, and so on; they use her as a mediator for social situations she barely comprehends or does not care to understand (she mentions several times that while she loves to race, she apparently just likes to run fast — there’s no sense she’s particularly competitive in the way, say, Alfvaldr’s son is).  Simultaneously, Elska’s distance from these customs provides an identification point for the (presumably human) reader, positing her as someone who doesn’t understand or necessarily need to understand how human life in Iceland was lived, 1000 years ago, from the inside out.

This is why Elska, I think, provides so much knowledgeable about issues of climate and geography but shows little interest in unpacking social discourse: as an animal she’s aligned with the natural world, a natural world taken to be the “same” Iceland as in the reader’s own time, with geysers and glaciers and so forth, while human society is revealed as highly historically contingent in its particular forms.  In other words, Elska the Icelandic horse functions for the young reader as a locus of a kind of transhistorical affect, allowing them a space to think through the past by alternatively aligning them with her incomprehension of history (‘who cares what a rettir is’) and ironically estranging them from that incomprehension (‘Elska doesn’t know what a blood feud is, but I know it sounds dangerous for that little girl’).

A lot of contemporary ecocriticism would take issue with the way the story implicitly suggests the eternity of Nature outside the variable human social order (and makes ‘history’ signify solely the latter), and I’d be inclined to agree, but a book for young readers is not the place to wage this particular battle.  Instead, I’m interested in pondering how this particular kind of animal narrative provides children with an avenue for slipping outside a purely human historiography altogether.  As I’ve said, we all know how this story goes: animal and child are separated, there is pining, a moment of strife, and after a heartfelt and dangerous situation, a reunion.  The same applies here: Elska acclimates to Alfvaldr’s farm over the years (which is not inordinately different from the last farm — we escape the trope of the cruel secondary owner here) and eventually, after several years, goes out on rettir with Alfvaldr and his sons.

Here she once again meets Amma, who has grown older.  One day, Amma slips away from the others to hang out with Elska and decides to ride her for old time’s sake.  However, when Alfvaldr’s sons spot her they think Amma is once again stealing the horse; she panics, hops off, and runs away — straight into a river.

This is not the best idea.  Amma is swept away and Alfvaldr’s sons immediately start flipping out, without any clue what to do.  Elska, however, sees Amma grab onto a rock, and in her recognition that Amma is in trouble, wades into the river and allows Amma to climb onto her back.  “We horses are the bridges of Iceland,” she informs the reader.  (Aside: this is actually a common saying in Iceland, since historically there are so many rivers that bridges cannot be built for all of them, and so horses were often used for travel even as they fell out of fashion elsewhere.)

The final chapter jumps forward some indeterminate amount of time, where it is revealed that Elska is once again living with Amma on her family’s farm.  After the incident in the river, it was proved sufficiently that Elska and Amma have a special bond, and he gifted the horse to her.  Things are progressing along with the seasons, and it’s revealed that Elska herself is pregnant and due to foal in the spring.  The human social realm and the natural realm are once again linked together in a kind of cyclical, biopolitical harmony.

I don’t know if a horse ever actually has or ever actually would care enough about a human being to pull them out of a river.  A savior dog I would buy, but having spent some time around horses I have a hard time imagining one going for saving someone over munching on some nearby grass.  To an extent, many animal-human narratives that climax in moments like this rely on some kind of sentimentalization, an anthropomorphosis that suggests a fundamental correspondence between how humans feel in and about the world and how things in the world feel about us.

We expect this from children’s stories, and being the cool and rational adults that we are, we recognize the narrative frippery for what it is.  This is a nice story to tell your kids, we might say, but it’s something you grow out of.  We have to realize, at some point, that horses don’t really feel this way about us, that they really are, after all, animals and tools to be used for racing, for exchange, for farm maintenance.

Elska and by extension the entire Horse Diaries series takes its generic cue from an earlier work, as Elska’s epigraph indicates:

“Oh! if people knew what a comfort to horses a light hand is….”

This quote is from Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel Black Beauty.  You’ve probably heard of it.  What you probably don’t know, unless you’ve read it — and the above quote does nothing to indicate this — is that the entire novel is, like Elska, narrated in the first person by a horse.  Furthermore, though we might consider Sewell’s novel something appropriate for children, it is (and was published as) a “real” novel for general audiences, though it has been historically aligned with the deeply gendered field of sentimental (read: women’s) fiction.

Like many “sentimental” novels of the nineteenth century, Black Beauty has a particular social consciousness; specifically, it aims to draw attention to animal welfare on the one hand and the rough living and working conditions of London cabbies and their horses on the other.  And so Elska’s epigraph is Black Beauty himself speaking, and the full line is this:

“Oh! if people knew what a comfort to horses a light hand is, and how it keeps a good mouth and a good temper, they surely would not chuck, and drag, and pull at the rein as they often do.”

The point here is fairly obvious: don’t treat your horses like crap. Don’t hurt them. They don’t like it. They have inclinations, wants, feelings.

It’s extremely telling that Sewell’s novel, a bestseller in its own time, is today thought of (and has mostly left its mark on) children’s fiction.  When I say the horse offers an opportunity for transhistorical affect, then, aside from the complicated baggage of a fully stabilized and naturalized idea of Nature, I mean to suggest that both Black Beauty and Elska embody, in their own ways, something that “falls out” of the normal progressive notion of history as one of increasing technical sufficiency, social literacy, and a maturing (and masculinized) human creature whose primary privilege is to instrumentalize the world and the other creatures that exist in it.

Just as Black Beauty aims to paint a world of greater respect and cohesion across boundaries of social class and species, Elska offers the reader an opportunity to contemplate a historical basis for the fondness they almost certainly feel for horses.  Though we might expect them to grow out of it, the continued existence of these stories suggests something about the affect we tend to expend on animals, which in turn suggests it is we humans — not the horses — who are trained out of it.  But maybe we don’t have to be.

On Borges, “Shakespeare’s Memory”

The following was originally written as part of a brainstorming session for an article I coauthored with Matthew Harrison for an edited collection on Shakespearean “users” — of academic and nonacademic varieties.  Our final product drifted from the texts below in its final analysis, but the claims and insights with which we began were nevertheless informative.  I’ve reproduced this opening salvo because I like it and want to keep it around.

Jorge Luis Borges’s 1983 short story “Shakespeare’s Memory” – Borges’s final short story, as it happens – is the narrative of a German literature professor named Hermann Sörgel who, during a conference in London, comes into possession of the memory of William Shakespeare.  It is passed along to him by another academic, who received it from a dying man while he worked as a physician in a field hospital during World War I.

Borges’s narrator asks for clarification, and the man, a South African named Daniel Thorpe, responds: “What I possess … are still two memories—my own personal memory and the memory of that Shakespeare that I partially am. Or rather, two memories possess me.  There is a place where they merge, somehow” (Collected Fictions, Kindle edition).  Of course, the boon is accepted.

Despite his unusual situation, Thorpe is not a particularly distinguished scholar – in fact, he admits his gift has produced work that garnered only mediocre reception – and Sörgel finds “that his opinions were as academic and conventional as my own.”  Yet sure enough, as time passes, Sörgel discovers himself muttering bits of unknown Chaucer, pronouncing familiar words in an unfamiliar cadence, and dreaming of the faces of men he half-remembers as Chapman, Jonson, and a nameless neighbor, “a person who does not figure in the biographies but whom Shakespeare often saw.”

Sörgel’s situation is in some sense a literary critic’s dream.  He has achieved ultimate access to the “real” Shakespeare, a kind of “first-person” Shakespeare that creeps on slowly but is nevertheless felt as immediate, effacing the normal reconstructive and mediating practices of reading, archival research, and scholarly speculation (cf Bolter and Grusin). Eventually, he tells the reader, “the dead man’s memory had come to animate me fully,” and he describes his pleasure at the various small details of Shakespeare’s work he came to understand.

Of course, things soon enough take a turn for the unpleasant.  Sörgel contemplates writing a biography of Shakespeare with his knowledge, but realizes that having Shakespeare’s memory does not make him any better of an (auto)biographer, and he is ill-suited for the task.  He also, it seems, becomes desensitized to the banality afforded by the memory, and eventually decides that a biography would be pointless: “Chance, or fate, dealt Shakespeare those trivial terrible things that all men know; it was his gift to be able to transmute them into fables, into characters that were much more alive than the gray man who dreamed them, into verses which will never be abandoned, into verbal music.”

It might be our first instinct to read this admission as an expression of Borges’s own formalism or aestheticism, to allow our memories of Borges’s views on art to explain their peculiar turn of the narrative to us: biographical context falls short of the pure power of poesy’s “verbal music.”  Shakespeare, a “gray man,” knew the universals of human experience and was able to write them into fables more interesting than life itself.  And surely such a reading is warranted, but there may be something else at work if we consider the other point at which Sörgel’s gift proves a curse.

In time, Sörgel begins to forget who and where and when he is: “I noted with some nervousness that I was gradually forgetting the language of my parents. Since personal identity is based on memory, I feared for my sanity.”  Indeed, his memory is not separate from Shakespeare’s, but the two intermingle, leading to increasing moments of confusion and panic: “One morning I became lost in a welter of great shapes forged in iron, wood, and glass. Shrieks and deafening noises assailed and confused me. It took me some time (it seemed an infinity) to recognize the engines and cars of the Bremen railway station.”

Shakespeare becomes corrosive, eating away at Sörgel’s sense of self, and in the process not only is Sörgel almost lost, but so is his appreciation of Shakespeare.  The curse is only lifted when Sörgel, dialing random numbers on the telephone, passes the memory on to a stranger who accepts the boon, as he had done before. But Sörgel discovers that he is not wholly cured.  He leaves the study of Shakespeare for first Blake and then the study of Bach, but in a short postscript dated 1924, he adds that “at dawn I sometimes know that the person dreaming is that other man. Every so often in the evening I am unsettled by small, fleeting memories that are perhaps authentic.

Like the haunted videotape in the horror film The Ring, Shakespeare’s memory is viral: infective, parasitical, and only relieving the sufferer when they pass it along to another host.  Of course, the terror of Borges’s story is more subdued than that of a horror film, more philosophically and existentially oriented, but I think it might do us well to consider what the story illuminates apart from the obvious reading of Borges’s own avowed aesthetic theories.

Bruno Latour, in his critique of what he calls “the Modern Constitution,” remarks that the “moderns have a peculiar propensity for understanding time that passes as if it really were abolishing the past behind it” – he calls this “calendar time,” which “situate[s] events with respect to a regulated series of dates” (We Have Never Been Modern 68).  Latour’s moderns think “they have definitively broken with their past,” but this experience of temporality ignores the way “the past remains, and even returns” (Latour 69).   This is what Linda Charnes has called “the non-linear ‘events’ of affective time,” which are “events which seek, and sometimes find, their representational truth only in the non-narrativity of bodies” (“We Were Never Early Modern,” in Hamlet’s Heirs, Kindle edition).  Charnes argues that the corpus of Shakespeare – textual primarily, but also the imagined body of the Bard himself – provides one arena that Western culture makes into such a site of “significant intensity,” letting us “attempt to locate ourselves as historical subjects” inhabiting a world marked by the passage of “meaningful time.”

For Latour, the return of the past is viewed by the moderns as an incomprehensible terror of “archaism,” a backsliding that, though it reverses time’s arrow, works to maintain the idea that temporality is purely linear (69).  This terror is precisely what the postmodernist Borges’s story figures: by effacing the differences between past and present, Sörgel’s assumption of Shakespeare’s memory threatens both his and Shakespeare’s historically embedded subjectivities, abolishing totally the passage of “meaningful time” in favor of a “significant intensity” of pure existential panic.

Such a line of thought abuts Jameson’s critique of postmodernism’s tendency toward pastiche, or the historicist point of view that we can only really make sense of the past when we remember it is the past and hold it at arm’s length.  But again, the problem for Borges’s narrator is not so much that he fails to historicize, but that the historicist impulse fails him: tapping into the unmediated past destroys the structures of meaning and feeling that allow the others around him, without such access, to produce meaningful experiences out of the past and out of literature.

What Borges’s story helps reveal, then, is that all literary scholarship is in some way founded upon what my friend Matthew Harrison has called affective anachronism, an impulse to “feel backward” (to adapt Heather Love’s term from another context).  Borges does not simply say that an immediate knowledge or experience of historical context robs literature of its power, but rather that it produces a distinctly different – and, as Thorpe’s and Sörgel’s situations as perpetually mediocre scholars show, not necessarily academically fecund – pleasure in the text.  It is in fact the process of feeling backward itself that constitutes viable scholarship.

The academy, it turns out, is less interested in the immediate knowledge that Shakespeare more often thought of the “moon” as “Diana” than one might at first think; in other words, the uses Shakespeare affords scholars are in fact quite distinct from what actually accessing the “real” Shakespeare might mean.  Immediately “knowing” the past robs it of its generative power as a site of both narrative and affective production.

Borges’s story suggests that finding oneself in Shakespeare (or Shakespeare in oneself) is profoundly numbing, but does this mean that an academic approach to Shakespeare is a sort of narcissism, one where we’d rather not find Shakespeare, but only our own ideas?  Or turning (forgive me) to Lacan, if our work as scholars is inherently narcissistic, is it defensible to say that academic Shakespeare is a kind of méconnaissance that simultaneously constitutes an image of him and yet fails to capture what we feel must be the “real thing,” a trompe-l’œil where something escapes, and that something is what makes Shax meaningful?  There’s an ambivalence here, in which we want Shakespeare to bolster our ego (provide us with our examples, illustrations, proof) while also resisting us (because such resistance affords the sense that our work emerges from a set of differential matrices that gave it singularity and significance).

Is There a Community Outside This Text?

Let’s establish some groundwork.  The Beginner’s Guide is a short art game by Davey Wreden that was named as a hot new IP for the year in a list at Destructoid.  The author of the list, Laura Kate Dale, made a very weird move of first, recommending the game, then, recommending the reader complete the game quickly in order to get a refund:

The Beginner’s Guide is a weird game, in that it caused a huge splash upon launch, with many reviewers hesitant to say anything at all about it. People were affected by it, not always positively, and it clearly had a strong impact on many players.

A few months on, it’s still unclear how genuine the narrative told is, or how much we can rely on the narrator of the experience. But if you have around and hour and a half and want to be floored by an unexpected narrative, you’ll be hard pressed to do better than The Beginner’s Guide.

Just make sure to complete it within your Steam refund window, as there are legitimate reasons to want to return this game after purchase.

The reason for this, it turns out, is that the game is metafictional and presents a scenario in which an unreliable narrator (portrayed by and named as Davey Wreden himself) is supposedly showing you some unfinished products made by another game creator who has since  disappeared.  The story takes on some dark aspects as it becomes clearer and clearer that Wreden’s fixation on this other artist is undeservedly intimate, and the end result is a meditation on how we feel about and approach authors through their work.  Dale explained her position in a later clarification:

To clarify the above statement regarding refunds, while I view this game as a work of fiction, and recommend people play it as such, many players view the narrative as an accurate work of non-fiction.

If you fall into the camp that view this as non fiction, an aspect of the narrative implies that the content is stolen wholesale from another developer. While I paid for the game and believe doing so is a morally acceptable action, what I wish to make clear is that if players disagree with my reading of the narrative and feel I recommended them an experience they didn’t morally agree with, there is a financial way to back out of that purchase.

This is not an encouragement to back out of payment due to length, but simply me pointing out that if you finish the game and believe the narrative to be non fiction, and if you believe that you purchased stolen goods, there is a way to avoid your money remaining with that developer in this very specific case.

My initial vague comment was an attempt to avoid a major spoiler for the narrative, but has unfortunately left the reasons for my recommendations open to wider interpretation.

To parse this out, then: the game is a fictional narrative that presents itself as, essentially, stolen content from an obsessed fan who has cobbled together his idol’s half-finished projects.  If you believe, however, that this game is somehow nonfiction, then you should request a refund.  What is bizarre here is Dale’s admission that the game is fiction and then the capitulation to a camp that reads it otherwise, as if fiction and nonfiction were a matter of interpretation.

But we’re not here to talk about Dale’s response so much as we are to talk about another response, from Paul Kilduff-Taylor, “The Beginner’s Guide of Interpretation,” which summarizes the above drama in more detail.  As Kildof-Taylor goes on to explain, he understands perfectly that the game is fiction, and he sees why so many of us are eyerolling at this peculiar turn:

A few years ago, I would have just joined in with sneering at this idea. I would have said that anyone who believes The Beginner’s Guide to be a comprehensive work of non-fiction is a total idiot, and thus has no right to any kind of opinion on it whatsoever, let alone a refund.

But, aha, Kilduff-Taylor explains, he knows why things have gone so awry.  The problem is what he calls “the equal validity of all interpretations,” and the following train of thought:

All interpretations of a work of art are equally valid

Truth is a component of validity

Some interpretations of a work may lead people to believe they are complicit in a crime perpetrated by the creator of the work

Therefore, such people are complicit in such a crime

Therefore they are morally obliged to ask for a refund

Thus, as Kilduff-Taylor says, if you see The Blair Witch Project and think it’s real, of course you’re morally obliged to demand the police investigate the crime.  Now here’s where Kilduff-Taylor does his own strange two-step: while admitting that this is a problem, he then laments that it cannot be solved, that interpretation itself has broken:

I now think that this may be a hopeless situation which cannot be escaped. It doesn’t matter that the “non-fiction camp” is overwhelmingly likely to be factually wrong, given the entire history of fiction, authorial insertion and so on. It doesn’t matter that, I believe, a superior interpretation of this game takes into account its ambiguity and allows space for other secondary readings to explore various facets of that ambiguity. It doesn’t matter that the game itself discusses these themes and we’re all playing into its hands continually with this kind of discussion. This does not matter. All interpretations are equally valid.

It doesn’t matter who is right or wrong, facts are useless.  “We’ve conflated everyone’s right to an opinion,” he says, “with the idea that all opinions are equally correct. That has happened now, and as a culture we can never go back.”

He admits to sounding like a grumpy old man, and I’m glad he does so, because what is happening here is that Kilduff-Taylor is rehearsing a bizarre version of the conservative reaction to the rise of postructuralism in literary studies: the center cannot hold!  His closing statement that “We’ve already had the death of the author” and it is now “time to party at the wake of meaning” is a double lamentation for the linchpins that held discourse in place that have, apparently, been totally destroyed by some nebulous development in our culture:

This is a combination of huge social factors, like the existence of the internet and the intensely tribal backlash culture that has emerged. “Literally” means “figuratively”; every opinion must be prefaced with a statement of identity to highlight and define its subjective nature.

Nested in here and masked are complaints about social media, “callout culture,” indeed, it critically anticipates even the very fact that I’m writing this response only six hours after Kilduff-Taylor posted his article.  I’m not thinking, it alleges: we’re not thinking.  We’re reactionary.  We have a feeling, and we act upon it.  As the weird condescension suggests, we’re devolving into infantile subjectivism.

Stanley Fish, a pioneer of reader response criticism, developed the idea of the “interpretive community” to fight against the assertion that the “death of the author” rendered literary interpretation into pure subjectivism.  The anecdote that most often circulates here is Fish’s story of teaching a list of names left on chalkboard to his class as if it were a poem; what happened was that, if the class decided to treat the list of names as a poem, they could produces an analysis of the text as if it indeed was poetic, despite that not being the author’s original intent.

The point to be made, then, is that meaning arises as part of a relationship between not simply the reader and the text, but a variety of readers, a text, and a variety of cultural protocols that inform the production of meaning.  Fish’s “interpretive communities” are the people who have decided, okay, we’re going to treat such-and-such type of language as poetic, and other types as not. Meanings are “true” only insofar as they correspond to the parameters outlined by the interpretive community: whether it’s our classroom and our chalkboard, or the portion of the world that has decided green means go and red means stop when you’re driving.  We can interpret all we like, but our interpretations are informed by outside, communal resources and circumstances, and in the end, validity of our interpretations is based on how well the community sustains them.

Let’s say something extreme and silly: I think Shakespeare’s Hamlet is about space aliens.  Specifically, Old Hamlet’s ghost is not a ghost, but an alien.  My evidence for this is that the ghost has otherworldly powers and is scary.  The evidence I discount is, well, the text’s referral to the creature  as a ghost, and the cultural history of ghosts and ghost stories Shakespeare had access to.  I can believe that the ghost is an alien as much as I want, but that will never make this interpretation valid, because there is no interpretive community to support it.  To put it another way: an interpretation can be “valid” insofar as a person interprets (no one can deny you that) but an interpretation’s connection to truth is a result of a community’s willingness to acknowledge and sustain its truth value.

In Kilduff-Taylor’s thinking, it seems,  a multiplicity of potential meanings completely explodes, in the popular mind, any ability to distinguish between truth claims.  We now, suddenly, live in a world where Hamlet is filled with aliens and also I can run down to the police station and tell them to investigate these Blair Witch murders, and even if they show me the IMDb pages of the actors involved and various making-of featurettes, because I am still entitled to my opinion.  Even if there is a “superior” interpretation that takes into account facts, my interpretation is still valid.  Hyperbole aside, this is flagrantly wrong.

Now, let’s say we have two interpretive communities, people who believe The Beginner’s Guide is fictional and people who believe it is nonfiction.  The people who believe it is nonfiction agree in their interpretation of the text, more or less.  Their evidence derives from the game itself, where the game’s creator Davey Wreden address you and tells you a story about how he took some of the stuff you’re seeing from another artist and then sold it to you. Seems pretty airtight, right?

But in doing so they fetishize the game as an object extricable from its circumstances of production and reception, namely, that we live in a culture and a market where it would be pretty universally regarded as bad form for Wreden to actually carry out the conceit of the game, let alone admit it to us, and metafiction as a longstanding tradition wherein you never trust a narrator named after the author.  Yet for this camp, meaning inheres not in interpretation, but in the most glaring parts of the object itself.  In the end, the author is not dead, he’s just been swapped for his persona.

The interpretive community which acknowledges the game as fiction takes not only the game’s narrative irony into account, but the extensive writing and criticism about the game and its metafiction.  This community’s interpretation is more sustainable (“superior” in Kilduff-Taylor’s terms) because it enlists the game in addition to a history of and protocol for critical reception, as well as the presumed protocols for the production and sale of the weird objects we call videogames.

Kilduff-Taylor’s tired handwashing here is not so much an indictment of the problem of two interpretive communities — whose existence and cross-reference is facilitated by the internet as a mode of critical reception — as it is an attempt to escape the problem entirely.  At some undesignated time before now, people just would have read the game correctly, no problem!  Meaning would have been obvious, and interpretation would have been a pleasant exercise in riffing upon its verities from that point on.  We’ve thus already lost, and all we can do is take solace in our own knowledge and interpretation as things fall apart.

This is disingenuous because the fact that anyone is even taking issue with the implication that Wreden should not be paid for his work is a sign that, indeed, people are not willing to let the patently worse interpretation of the game stand.

20 paragraphs on Undertale: a critique

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EDIT: twitter user @akatookey alerted me that the “genocide run” (as it was referred to in an earlier draft of this post) isn’t preferred terminology of the creator, which makes a load of sense. i went along with what seemed to be the prevailing usage in the community materials i found but since i now have an alternative, all instances have been changed to “no-mercy.”  -ML

1.

Undertale is a game by toby fox. it is very clever and entertaining, and filled with loads of cool characters and funny jokes. it is kind of a slog to play, because it has random encounters that lead to bullet hell segments, and these are my two least favorite types of gameplay. still, it’s worth it.

2.

Undertale has received much deserved acclaim, but criticizing it has been something of a thorny issue. jake muncy’s review at killscreen for instance was met with a lot of derision, since muncy takes issue with what he sees to be as the unclarity of the game’s combat mechanics. the point that muncy ends up making needs to be considered, however: he is not admitting he is ‘bad at games’ — he is telling us that the game does not always clearly communicate to the player that pacifist options in combat are having any notable effect. indeed, i would add that this is symptomatic of Undertale as a whole: it is attempting to communicate a message about how to be a good or bad person in the world it presents for you, but in the end the game itself unintentionally muddles your ethical relationship to that world.

3.

this is important because the game operates on a very unusual and fascinating moral calculus. in combat you always have the option of fighting a monster or peacefully placating them. the game tracks these decisions: killing any monster results in an eventual “neutral” ending, which gives you the option of trying again on a purely pacifist route, which will get you the so-called “true” ending. on the other hand, killing every single creature you encounter in the game results in the so-called no-mercy route. the game keeps in mind your previous playthroughs — thus the true ending is always preceded by a neutral ending — and if you complete a no-mercy playthrough, the game remembers this and, even if you attempt to do a pacifist route afterward, there are grave consequences.

4.

there will be spoilers.

5.

Undertale has three well written stories, but i don’t think these stories hang together. the criticism (for me at least) arises out of an attempt to consider the project as a whole: games are structured like arguments insofar as they make a series of propositions that you-as-player agree or disagree to with an eye to how these things will pay off in the future timeline of gameplay. the game (as a system) offers incentives or disincentives for various choices, and in so doing belies its own (ie, the creators’) commitment to one path over the other. the branching narratives of a game form their own sort of system that belies an argument. in the case of Undertale, the game itself embraces the notion of its various plotlines coexisting (or potentially coexisting) simultaneously as a kind of quantum phenomenon expressed through metafictional gimcrackery. yet in considering all of its possibilites as a whole, the game’s argument tends toward incoherence.

6.

Undertale‘s no-mercy run is so incredibly tedious and difficult to complete, and the characters in the game shriek at you for being horrible so often, that these constitute in my view pretty clear disincentives for doing it. the game (and by extension its creators) are very obviously telling you you’re being an asshole, even as they allow for the possibility. by contrast, if you complete a neutral run, the game will helpfully offer you hints on how to get the “best” ending, ie, encouraging you to pursue it further and do a pacifist run. however, in the case of a no-mercy run, the game assigns you a persona of perverse willfulness in order to construct a sensible narrative for why you are carrying it out.

7.

you play as a human child who has fallen into an underground realm of neurotic monsters. the monsters fled underground to escape human persecution, and have been plotting vengeance in their own incredibly half-hearted way for some time. things were set on this path, we eventually learn, when a previous human child fell into the underground and befriended the child of the king and queen of monsters. in a terrible tragedy, the human child and the prince of the monsters died, and ever since the king of monsters has been working to collect enough human souls to breach the barrier keeping his people trapped in the underground.

8.

that is what you learn when you do a neutral run. if you follow the game’s prodding after that and do a pacifist run, here is what happens: you are not who you think you are. the first human child, it is implied, attempted to incite an open war between humans and monsters by emotionally manipulating the royal family, a ploy that resulted in the aforementioned tragedy. your player character’s name is “frisk” but up until this point, everyone has referred to you by the name of the first fallen child, who by default is named “chara.” in the pacifist ending, you peacefully resolve the conflict with the monsters, placate the unhappy spirit of the prince of monsters, and lead all your new friends back into the light of day. it’s nice.

9.

if you complete a no-mercy run, you discover that the spirit of the first human, chara, is still lingering. after you have murdered everyone in existence, chara approaches you with a bargain: trade your soul for a chance to remake the world. not complying renders the game unplayable. agreeing seemingly “resets” the world. attempting to complete a pacifist run after this point results in the same ending and is mechanically no different, save for one thing. in completing a pacifist run after a no-mercy run, a brief stinger will reveal that frisk has been fully possessed by chara and still plans on taking out the surviving characters. short of messing with the game’s data, there is no way to undo this.

10.

my biggest criticism of Undertale is that for a good portion of it to make sense you have to do the thing the game expressly does not want you to do; the implied player of the best ending just accepts things on blind faith and never questions or investigates the metaphysics of it all. doing a no-mercy run makes the best ending unobtainable. this wouldn’t be a problem, i insist, if not for the fact that the no-mercy run is the most expedient way of making sense of a few aspects of the story, namely, the role of the character of sans, and the only way to discover the nature of the original fallen human, chara.

11.

sans is a short skeleton who maintains memories of your various playthroughs of the game through saving and reloading. this is because he was assisting a mysterious doctor with some secret experiments and now operates as some sort of guardian of the game’s timeline/reality. he will suggest the background on this only if you do a no-mercy run. you can discover roughly similar information in a pacifist run, but this requires you to save and reload several times in his presence, which is frankly obtuse since it is only through the no-mercy route that he openly admits to knowing something. though he appears to you as a moral arbiter no matter what route of the game you’re pursuing, without the hint from the no-mercy run, his anomalous knowledge seems more like a convenience than anything having to do with the plot.

12.

yet what truly interests me here is chara. chara is the closest thing the game has to a real villain, since everyone else you fight is either confused or misunderstood and can be helped. chara is, not to put too fine a point on it, radically evil. without completing a no-mercy run, you don’t know this: you simply know that chara was not as nice as everyone thought they were. however: you are chara. what i mean is, chara is the name of the player, since that is who you name when you begin the game, long before the player character is revealed to be frisk. in other words, chara is implied to have your name. indeed, toby fox said on twitter you should name the fallen human after yourself. death of the
author notwithstanding, the implied player, from the developer’s standpoint, becomes coterminous with the game’s vision of radical evil.

13.

in the end you are either someone who did their best to “listen” to what the game was telling you and get the “best” ending, or you’re someone who decided to be a homocidal jerk and somehow, in the process, got the fullest sense of the game’s narrative possible. i have no idea why these outcomes are counterpoised.

14.

attempting to discuss these issues with fans of the game meant i was sanctimoniously told i expected to not face consequences for my actions. even questioning the game’s representation of this moral choice made me, in the eyes of several other players, morally dubious, or someone who cared too much about a game that was trying (and they assumed, succeeding) to make me feel bad.  but i did not do a no-mercy run. indeed, the idea was unpleasant to me, since as i said, this route exacerbates what i already find tedious about the game.  furthermore, i genuinely liked the characters; i have no problem with not being able to murder them. but even at the end of the pacifist run, i had questions about the world, these characters, and their motivations. frankly, without the knowledge gleaned from a no-mercy run, sans and chara are so barely outlined that they make little sense in the larger context of the game.  my knowledge of no-mercy runs here is gained through perusing the wiki and LPs on youtube.

15.

the game hid answers to my questions behind something i had no interest in doing. it’s not clear what it was trying to communicate to me in doing this. nevetheless, Undertale feels very insistent about wanting to tell me something about the nature of friendship and forgiveness and what it means to play a game. some aspects of the no-mercy run, as far as i can tell, leverage a kind of anticompletionism message: characters suggest you’re committing these atrocities simply to “see what happens” and things to that effect. and indeed, many who complete these runs are probably doing just that. but the game itself is what has married completionism to the act of murdering all the other characters. and why is it that only players who choose this path confront the real truth of chara? why cannot chara — who is you, really — be overcome?

16.

in all other arenas, Undertale insists that conflict arises from unwarranted fear and misunderstanding. it rewards you for pacifism and forging friendships. everyone, it wants to suggest, can get along only if we’re determined enough. and yet, the no-mercy run offers the exact obverse suggestion: radical evil exists, and it cannot be expunged. if we take Undertale at its word, however, and believe its conceit of multiple timelines manipulable by the game’s save and load functions, we find that the latter possibility is necessarily latent in the former. that is to say, chara happened; they are constant through all possible narratives, and they are still there, somewhere. the game’s sentimentality runs aground on the lack of mercy it allows the player to exercise, and the subsequent lack of mercy it extends to that player.

17.

flannery o’connor famously said that To Kill a Mockingbird was good — for a children’s book. what she meant was that the story it had to tell, while good, was also ethically simplistic. if the publication of Go Set a Watchman this year did anything, it proved o’connor right: by introducing the complexities of racism in showing a segragationist atticus finch who could, on the one hand, believe in the innocence of a black man, and on the other, insist black people in general should not exist in the same realm of life as white people, the novel revealed how dearly held the simple tale of good and evil had become to us.

18.

at the risk of sounding terribly crass (and catty), i will reformat o’connor’s critique for Undertale. part of the game’s power is that it allows the player to feel like they’re part an intense network of emotions, spread across its cast of colorful characters. the game attaches a moral judgment to this act, suggesting being friendly, open, and merciful is the right thing to do. the stance, while not revolutionary, is certainly admirable, considering the violent tendencies of most games.

19.

but the emotional high of making the decision to be good relies on the concomitant potential to be evil. and in order to maintain the desired sanctity of its good ending, the game suggests that there is indeed a way to go beyond salvation — a way that the game itself scripts and judges you for. the ideal Undertale player is docile, merciful, and does not question their path, even when the game presents no indication that things are moving forward. the ideal Undertale player is not you, does not have your name: you have already been here, left your dark mark, and now you must be exorcised. finding yourself in Undertale is dangerous.

20.

my favorite character is mettaton.

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Epanalepsis, frames of reference, and the riddle of narrative

I wrote about Cameron Kunzelman’s game Catachresis on this blog before.  Last week his new game, a sort of thematic sequel, Epanalepsis, was released.

Needless to say, what follows constitutes spoilers, insofar as spoilers is a concept that applies to this game.

I made the caveat above because there is, frankly, a good chance I can tell you everything that happens in the game and it would not terribly impact your experience while playing it.  The criticism the game has received has been for its obtuseness, the way its narrative simultaneously points somewhere while insistently seeming to go nowhere.

Let’s talk about that.

Epanalepsis takes place across three time periods: 1993, 2013, and 2033.  In each you play, for approximately 15-20 minutes, a character from that time: a pioneering gentrifier and slacker named Rachel, a listless hacker named Anthony who lives in Rachel’s old apartment in a now-trendy neighborhood, and in the corporate dystopian future, a robotic drone that tends to humans in some sort of cryosleep in a converted apartment building.  Gameplay is simple: you walk among the rooms in the apartment, look at objects or people, and receive a bit of information or dialogue.

The game is short, giving you snapshots of these characters’ lives, and it fills in background details through the oddly performative player-character frame of a point-and-click adventure game: you click on a piece of furniture and the character launches into a brief soliloquy regarding what they think of it, where it came from, and where they hope it will be in the future.  In stripping out the normal complex puzzles, Kunzelman has created a minimalist adventure game that at times almost reads like a parody of the form.

In fact, the third chapter threatens to devolve into self-parody: you are a robot, a literal drone, that apparently putters back and forth in a single room all day, tending to human beings submerged in cryosleep and, it is suggested, virtual realities not at all dissimilar to more traditionally exciting videogames.  You, the drone, are compromised by a group of rebel hackers who are going to use you to blow up the city-block by sending you on a suicide mission.  They may or may not also be aiming to steal or destroy something called “the Von Lessinger equipment” which may or may not be some sort of time travel technology.  This is never explained to you, as the humans don’t bother to explain their goals to the drone, of course, and so you putter between them and try to report their contraband (they have cut off your connections to the network for just this reason).  You are supposedly diegetically controlled by a character known only as “the Inventor.”

This is a critique of the gaming format up to this point — you are reduced to a literal cog in the game’s extended machinery, tending to it, tirelessly clicking the appropriate things to help it run its course on your computer, beholden to the whims of the designer behind it — but it is also a commentary on the narrative of the game itself.  Just as the drone is used by humans, the humans are being used by others for their own purposes, and these entities don’t see any imperative to explain themselves.

For, in place of the mechanical puzzles, Kunzelman serves up a narrative puzzle, one that may be intentionally broken.  At the end of the first chapter, Rachel meets a stranger, a woman calling herself Tony, who makes odd intimations about time, the future, and the nature of the cosmos.  These intimations are similar to ones Rachel received earlier, from a red-cloaked man in a dream, who left her with an object he calls “the Burden,” which appears to be some sort of book or paper — unreadable to Rachel — that morphs into a blinking eye just before she wakes up.  When Tony has said her piece, she disappears and Rachel is left with a choice. After making the choice, the chapter immediately ends.  In the next chapter, you play as a man named Anthony (an odd coincidence!) who also meets the cloaked man (Pasus) and a cloaked woman (Cascabel),  the latter of whom may or may not be Tony from the previous chapter.

At about this moment in my first playthrough I began to detect the influence of Gene Wolfe, who writes in a similarly elliptical way, suggesting that characters you meet are and are not who they say they are, or who they appear to be.  But a difference arises: Wolfe writes narratives that are seemingly inscrutable riddles but which always have solutions.  There may be several and divergent interpretations, but Wolfe, late modernist that he is, gives you always enough tools to build an interpretation.

In Epanalepsis, solving the riddle in a Wolfean fashion is frankly impossible.  I received Kunzelman’s notes on the game as a reward for the tier at which I backed the Kickstarter.  Reading through them after my playthroughs, I confirmed my suspicion of Wolfe’s small influence, and in reading through Cameron’s notes, I discovered some information that would have “solved” the game’s riddle, had it been included.  But to what degree do these notes, always referring to an in-process creation, sometimes obviously diverging wildly from the product itself, really explain what happens?  Does such information, since it is not contained in the normal course of gameplay, even count toward an interpretation? I here belie my own formative immersion in New Criticism, and my own feelings as a creator: everything I put in a game is there for a reason, everything I leave out I leave out for a reason.  Who’s to say the same about Kunzelman?  Or am I just, again, in a different way, scooped up by the Inventor’s guiding hand, tossed back and forth from one frame of reference to another, looking for the continuity that will bring them together, reveal them as commensurate, and make my puttering back and forth cogent and meaningful?

I cannot tell you what I thought the game was about before I read the notes, now, because my knowledge is hopelessly inflected.  I did not write down what I thought in a coherent fashion before I read them, and so I can’t honestly provide my account of what the game looked like from the inside, because now I know what it could look like from the outside.

Before reading the notes, I did do my best to squeeze what I could out of the game itself.  I played through several times and plotted characters on a sheet of scrap paper, searching for anything that might crack the narrative code, but found none.  The closest I got was the beginning of Anthony’s chapter, which is presented as an MMO, a game-within-a-game.

Anthony hopes to make a boss-run, but his friends are not logged in, so he courts randos outside the boss’s lair.  A player agrees to help if Anthony will help him collect mushrooms, and so of course he does.  During this segment you pass in  front of the door to the boss’s lair, what the contextual label of the game calls a BAWSS GATE.  Behind the gate and its wall, you can see a high tower with a single light on.

Unless it’s a bug, there’s no information about this gate or this castle.  It is simply a BAWSS GATE, and there is something sitting beyond it, something in that tower, waiting for you.  But no matter how much you click, no matter how many mushrooms you collect, you never receive any sort of flavor text.  Anthony has no reflections, fears, hopes about this thing — as far as I know, it’s the only object like this in the game.

This is Epanalepsis writ small, by way of Kafka’s parable about the gate and the Law: the Boss resides here,  beyond this gate, high in its tower.  It is the endpoint, the goal, the summation, the thing that traditionally marks progress or an endpoint to a game.  It is what we like to think would make the game cohere, and in Epanalepsis it is something about which we will forever remain ignorant.  So the Boss toils on in its work, just as Cascabel and the cloaked man, Pasus, toil on, as well as the cursed old man Abhar Lama in the forgotten-or-yet-to-come reign of Emperor Eskar Lekkak, writing in a book that waits to be read, all of them meeting (as they say) our player characters again and again, watching them make choices that sometimes change, sometimes do not, and which nevertheless do not seem to free any of them from the mobius strip of the game’s narrative: a mobius strip we are told exists, but whose curves we never actually see…

…unless, of course, like Pasus and Cascabel, we slip through the walls of that narrative, step outside of it, and read a book, a certain book, and glimpse more broadly the bends and folds of time, development, and choice.  And yet, even then, again like Pasus and Cascabel — who are lost, apparently, who say they are searching for someone they cannot reach, a figure they call their teacher — we are unable to pin ourselves and others down in a narrative that resolves in a way we’d like, knowing but not omniscient.