The Goldfish Theory of Character or, Shakespeare is Dead

Content warning: The essay below very briefly deals with representations of abuse, self-harm, and rape as deployed by one of the narratives discussed.

I’m going to talk to you about the graphic novel Kill Shakespeare, written by  Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery, but first I need to talk about goldfish and the Magic Mike films.

Goldfish, as common wisdom tells us, grow to the size of their containers: a goldfish kept in a tiny bowl will be tiny, a goldfish kept in a large tank will grow to match the proportions of that tank.  Fictional characters work the same way.

Let me explain with an example: Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 film Magic Mike is a drama about a young man who befriends the titular Mike and falls into the seedy-glamorous world of male stripping.  It’s an amusing movie at times, but also a drama, filmed and performed in a vaguely documentarian style, and while the film suggests the upsides of being a male stripper (attention, sex, money) the overall plot concerns Mike’s desire to leave the “lifestyle” behind.

The sequel, 2015’s Magic Mike XXL, directed by Gregory Jacobs, is one of the weirdest things in the world to watch if, like me, you view it for the first time back-to-back with the prior film.  This is because the first movie’s generic constraints (a person desires to become respectable by escaping their affectively rich but at times dangerous and socially disreputable job) is directly at odds with the generic setup of the second (a person who left a fulfilling line of work finds life hollow and ‘gets the band back together for one last show’).  Characters who exist in both films must shift considerably in order to fit the new genre: the supporting cast of the first film, all visually striking (ie, they’re all pretty attractive dudes of various molds) and distinct but wholly static (they do not change at all from the beginning to the end of the film), are one-by-one reintroduced and given a touchpoint for their “arcs.”  For instance, “Big Dick Richie,” whose defining characteristic in the first film is “being the guy with the biggest dick,” is presented with a problem in Magic Mike XXL: he cannot find a woman to accommodate his extremely large dick, and this in concert with his aging is undercutting his sense of himself and his place in life.  In the course of the film he meets a wealthy, sassy, middle-aged wine mom who is more than happy to hook up with him for the night, and I would be lying if I said that this is not in fact a satisfying arc for this character in this film.

But my point is this: characters are like goldfish in that they can grow to match their containers.  Magic Mike XXL is fascinating to me because it is a totally different movie than its predecessor in almost every conceivable way, and yet its differences are in fact expansions of moments, elements, or ideas present in the first film.  It is, in short, a kind of fanfiction of Soderbergh’s movie: rather than trying to “continue the story” of the first movie (it ostensibly does this, but really it disposes of it entirely), Magic Mike XXL extracts the characters from that plot and its world and drops them into a new container, logically developing them from their starting points in the prior film but making use of the new container to take them in tonally different directions.

Now here’s the sad truth: goldfish don’t actually grow to match their containers.  There are, in fact, only sick and healthy goldfish.  A goldfish in a small tank with no or poor filtration will not be healthy enough to grow larger than its container.  A goldfish in a large aquarium with good filtration, plenty of food, and ideal temperatures will grow exceedingly well.  What makes the Magic Mike films work is not that characters are moved from small containers to larger ones, but rather they are moved between two basically very good containers well suited to letting them flourish to fulfill specific roles as the genre of the film necessitates.

Now, Kill Shakespeare.

Kill Shakespeare is a graphic novel series from IDW Publishing with a simple premise: all of Shakespeare’s characters are real and coexist, and some of them want to kill him.  Others do not, and try to stop the characters who want to kill him.  It’s extremely bad.  If you want to see my selection of “really awful moments” in the normal vein of internet snark, see this Twitter thread.  All these admissions aside, I’m not going to talk to you at length about how the comics are bad, but rather think about why, and what that can tell us.

In Act 4 of Hamlet, Hamlet is sent by Claudius to England to be executed.  In the play as we know it, pirates attack, Hamlet parleys with their leader, and negotiates his return to Denmark to conclude Shakespeare’s tragedy.  Very well!  In Kill Shakespeare, however, what happens is pirates attack and then go ahead and take Hamlet to England, where Richard III has joined forces with Macbeth and his Lady to hunt down a mythological being, a god and creator, “Shakespeare,” whose magical golden quill allows him to control the world.  Hamlet soon meets up with a rebel faction led by Juliet Capulet and Othello, with Falstaff serving as comic relief/a kind of Obi-Wan to Hamlet’s recalcitrant Luke (Prince Hal, meanwhile, is never mentioned, and apparently does not exist, since Hamlet fills his role as Falstaff’s second banana).

As premises go, this is not a bad one.  I can ask pedantic questions all day, of course, such as: why does Juliet refer to England as her “country” when she is, in Shakespeare, from Verona (and Hamlet continues to be from Denmark, the Macbeths from Scotland, etc)?  Why is Shakespeare god (the characters quite gratingly use the word “Will” in place of “God” in their oaths)?  Is this Shakespeare who is god the same Shakespeare we the readers know about, and is the England in which the story takes place in some sense “our” England, and if not, then what the fuck is this place and who are these people?

None of these questions are ever answered and they are pedantic because the point here is not to puzzle out an ontology by which all of Shakespeare’s creations coexist, but to provide you with an excuse to see them fight it out. Yet the premise falters because, say, unlike Fables — which uses fairytale logic native to its source material to cram together diverse character archetypes — Kill Shakespeare is stuck in an odd position of treating Shakespeare’s extremely specifically situated characters as if they were fairytale archetypes.  That is, the writers are torn constantly between telling a fairly straightforward Campbellian adventure story (Hamlet discovers he is a prophesied King of Shadows, whatever that means, and will return Shakespeare to his people) while also paying deference to the popular notions of these characters as “timeless types” (Hamlet constantly refuses his Campbellian call to action, but never for any clear reason, and he literally stops talking about Denmark at all after a certain point, leaving the entire plot of Hamlet hanging en medias res).

The problem is that Hamlet outside of Denmark turns out not to be very interesting.  The first volume of the four-volume series is particularly slapdash, introducing all the major players and fitting a vaguely Shakespearean skin over fairly archetypal characters (this is Juliet, the brains of the rebellion, here’s Othello, her bodyguard [and boy if that isn’t a representational decision worth pausing over], here’s Lady Macbeth, a femme fatale setting out to seduce and betray all the other villains, etc etc).  The second volume ends up being the most interesting, as this is when the writers start thinking through their decisions to transplant these characters.  It’s notable, also, that this volume is host to the few places where the comics explicitly invoke Shakespearean plots to then conspicuously modify them.

For instance: Lady Macbeth turns out to be a femme fatale because, since helping Macbeth to the throne of Scotland, she admits she was the one who’s thirsted for power all along, and she’s decided to take charge of her own life.  Okay, cool.  And Hamlet? Well, it turns out he has daddy issues because his father was actually not a very good king, and suspected everyone — including his brother and his own son! — of plotting against him, so Hamlet’s basically been charged with revenging a man he hates and who hated him.  Juliet explains how a last-second deviation from the well-known ending of Romeo and Juliet killed her lover but left her alive and heartbroken (plot twist: after Juliet and Hamlet have hooked up, that Romeo is still alive and he’s also a huge asshole, but anyway).  Both Othello and Iago escaped their altercations in Cyprus (though Desdemona was not so lucky…) and now they’ve been playing a game of cat-and-mouse across Europe or whatever the hell this place is.  These moments are when Kill Shakespeare is at its most interesting: when it’s very consciously attempting to adapt its extracted characters to their new environment, without the plot-points we use to traditionally render them intelligible.

But at the end of the second volume, Hamlet convinces Shakespeare (who’s been living in a cottage in the woods drinking and being a hot mess for no particular reason) to return during Juliet’s battle against Richard III.  Shakespeare’s magic quill, which supposedly grants powers of creation, here just shoots lightning bolts and kills people.  Anyway, Richard dies and Lady Macbeth (having long ago betrayed her husband with Richard) goes into hiding.  Falstaff dies, in the manner of comic relief/mentor characters everywhere, and Shakespeare goes off to wander his creation because I guess blowing up some of it made him want to see it again?

This is the point where the series really goes off the rails, as the story continues for two more volumes after the main plot has been entirely defused.  In the third volume, the writers decide to go into a “grimdark” direction — rather than pulling various characters together, they begin to reimagine them.  And so we have Prospero and Miranda,  alone together on their island: Miranda is clearly represented as a victim of domestic abuse (Prospero keeps her drugged/enchanted to the point of psychosis), self harm (she cuts herself), and rape (by Caliban, a giant furry wolf monster who speaks in broken English [and given these characters’ textual and critical history, there’s a lot to feel queasy about here]).  Let me be clear, as stupid as this all is, I’m not offended at what the writers have “done” to these characters because they are timeless, beautiful works of Shakespearean art, but rather that they have extracted and reinterpreted them in the laziest and crudest possible ways — especially after the prior volume showed such moments of interesting attention to how Shakespeare’s characters might deviate from what we know of them, rather than presenting their difference as inexplicable and obstinate fact.

The problem with this latter approach — presenting a character as just, for some reason, different, and yet also the same — is that it always raises the question of why even bother?  Why does Prospero, for instance, want to kill Shakespeare?  Because Shakespeare (who is god, remember) killed his wife, he alleges.  But how and why?  Was this a thing that literally happened, or is it an effect of how Shakespeare “wrote” Prospero?  Well, it turns out that Shakespeare ran a weird wizard school where he taught Prospero, Lady Macbeth, and Sycorax magic before he went off into hiding.  Also, uh, Sycorax was Prospero’s wife?  Or something?

The fourth volume is even weirder, as the protagonists are captured by yet another band of pirates, led by the masked pirate king Cesario, who has a lover, Viola.  These two characters are, in Twelfth Night, the same character, and if you know this and have watched The Princess Bride then you can guess that by the end Cesario will die and Viola will take over his identity.  But this Viola also has no twin brother and is not a shipwrecked noblewoman.  Indeed, aside from the Cesario/Viola payoff, there’s no clear reason for this to be Viola at all.  The climax of this volume — the final one to date, which resolves none of the dangling plot threads such as “why is any of this happening” — involves Viola’s confrontation with Young Lucius from Titus Andronicus, who is also a pirate, and apparently still an ancient Roman, but also, and get this: a cannibal.  It seems all the Andronici are cannibals now, even though in Shakespeare’s play Titus used forced cannibalism as a mode of revenge against his enemies rather than participating in it himself.  And the victim of his revenge — Tamora, Queen of the Goths — showed up earlier in the series as a ranger and scout for Richard III (in England), so, like, what is her relation to this story?

The thing about Kill Shakespeare, in the end, is that the tank it places Shakespeare’s goldfish in isn’t particularly good: the water is murky, the food slight.  Characters shift and change in interesting ways sometimes, and sometimes they are so translated it becomes confusing why we even bother recognizing them as Shakespeare’s characters.  And this is what I mean when I say that Shakespeare is already dead: these continuances of his characters, no matter how flimsy or stupid they might seem to me, are real continuances, and Shakespeare won’t stop them.  These writers are calling out the name “Shakespeare,” tapping into the wellspring of cultural capital, and trying to pay forward some conglomeration of ideas gleaned from the textual and popular corpus we call Shakespeare.

But Shakespeare is dead.  Or dead and alive, living in death.  He has been elevated, in the world of the comic, to the confusing status of the sovereign exception (as Giorgio Agamben would have it): he is an embodied man who somehow created the place he inhabits and the people he interacts with, who ostensibly controls this place and these people, even as they constantly threaten to dethrone and kill him.  Or as Harold Bloom would have it, Shakespeare is dead because Shakespeare has “invented” us as his readers even as we are constantly misreading him, and he can’t say boo about it.

Shakespeare is dead because, factually, the man is dead, but also because the Bard, in the popular imagination, is shorn of the specifics of place and time and genre that, as I argued before, are the trellises along which what we call in fiction “character” and in reality “personality” may grow.  In the place of Shakespeare as a personalized entity we are left with the curio cabinet of his various characters, left to us like action figures.

What the comic dramatizes is the confusing and incoherent narrative torsions by which popular culture continues to invest in an idea of Shakespeare’s creative supremacy and timeless universality even as such canonization threatens to efface and erase Shakespeare and his characters “as they really are,” instead installing in their place only tenuous connections, odd doubles, shadow-selves, remixes and riffs.  This is, in fact, what the Shakespeare industry is built upon: strategic movements of the erasure and the eruption of context as they relate to the Shakespearean text and its potential performances.  (I have a dissertation chapter on this, even).

Literary and artistic history is full of examples of people who have done extremely interesting things with Shakespeare’s goldfish.  Kill Shakespeare, for all its vaulting ambition, is not a particularly good caretaker: nevertheless, in seeing these goldfish flounder, we can trace in acute detail the mechanisms by which continuance and reproduction (mal)function.

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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.

The Privilege of Horror

Cameron Kunzelman via Twitter recently reminded us all of a thing:

Zoe Quinn’s Twine game is very good, and does precisely what I think she intends it to do — to demystify the strange fandom cult that Lovecraft accrues through a rigorous application of Godwin’s Law.  What I think is great about the game is how well it forces one to evaluate their principles with regard to Lovecraft by demonstrating that he was not just “some racist” in the way that nearly anybody 100 years ago (or today, as a matter of fact) would be susceptible to systemically and structurally inculcated racism.

HPL was the sort of racist who went out of his way to be racist, to think up ways to be even more actively racist than any white person living in the 1920s was on a day to day basis. Obviously Lovecraft’s racism is something I’ve known about for a long time, due to my familiarity with his work. It’s something I’ve developed thoughts on, but weirdly enough it wasn’t until replaying Quinn’s game last night that they all came bubbling out in a multi-tweet series. 


This was probably what did it, really.  My realization was that I know Lovecraft so well that I can actually sense the man in his racist statements devoid of context — both through his prose, and through the logic of his racism, the assumptions that underpin his scientific materialist worldview.

I got a perfect score on the game.







But I suppose this is as good a point as any as to make clear my stance, however half-formed.

Horror is about being afraid — and I believe this is valuable.  It was valuable to me when I fell in love with the genre, because I was a very anxious child in a very unhappy environment and stories about monsters told me that it was okay to be afraid, because there are indeed things to be afraid of.

The cosmic despair of someone like Lovecraft is a luxury.  It is a result of his race and his socioeconomic class that he could survey all of creation, pronounce it barren and hostile, and then amuse himself by populating it with phantasmagoric projections of anyone who was different from and thus upsetting to him.  For Lovecraft the decline of humanity was synonymous with the decline of a certain type of rarefied whiteness, inevitably a result of miscegenation and the embrace of the unknown.

If horror has an ethical dimension, then it is this: to remind us that there are things to fear.  To remind us that we don’t always win.  That many humans on this planet did not win: they were mowed down by regimes of exploitation, oppression, and hate far greater than they could comprehend.

Gone Home: Dramatic Irony and Other Stuff

For the most part I am agnostic, if not outright hostile, to the idea of spoilers in the traditional sense — for television shows, films, books, comics, even videogames.  My usual point in this regard is that knowing what happens in a narrative does not in any way decrease the workings of that narrative.  Any story worth its salt stands up to readings that do not pivot on you not knowing what’s going to happen next.

Gone Home from the Fulbright Company, available online now, makes me eat my hat in this regard, at least a little bit.  The gist of the game is that you play a college-aged student returning home to her family after a yearlong trip in Europe, only to find the house apparently abandoned and in a state of disarray.  With a storm rolling in and all lines of communication cut, you begin searching the home for signs of your father, mother, and most especially, your younger sister.

I would argue that, at least on a first run-through (and certainly the game can handle more), it is imperative that you know almost nothing more than what I’ve just told you, for reasons I will regrettably have to explain later on, in ways that will ruin the effects I want to document.  This is my way of saying:

SPOILER WARNING.  Do not read beyond this point if you have not played Gone Home.

There is a certain type of narrative irony — dramatic irony — that occurs when characters in a story operate on information the viewer or reader knows to be incomplete or incorrect.  In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, for instance, a young woman named Catherine Morland, absolutely in love with Gothic novels and their spooky demenses, visits the titular estate and, because she expects skeletons and dark secrets around every corner, ends up making a huge fool of herself and embarrassing everyone.  The comedy of the novel relies on the reader’s necessary disjunction from Catherine’s mindset — ie, you realize, always, that she’s being a bit of a loon.

To make a very important point very messily and quickly: Gone Home makes you, the player, Catherine Morland.

To explain: Gone Home has a happy ending, after a sense.  A beautiful, wonderful ending.  It is not a supernatural game, nor a horror game in the strictest sense, though one can make the argument that it is very much a ghost story.  As you wander your empty family house in the middle of the night, the storm raging outside, your familiarity with narrative tropes — with videogame tropes — begins to eat away at you.

“What happened here?” is a question posed by videogames like System Shock or Bioshock, necessitating you poke around an environment for clues before said environment eventually tries to kill you.  Gone Home‘s story begins with the same question, but carries it to a distinctly different end.  But on the way there the intrusions of these other narrative elements distorts what you expect the game to do — will I see a shadow on the wall ahead, hear footsteps one room over, find a corpse ragdolled on the floor of the bathroom?

But what has happened is this: because you waited until the last minute to book your flight home, your parents have gone to a couples’ counseling retreat they had planned in advance, and your sister has run away with her girlfriend in the hope of finding a better, more understanding life somewhere else.

There is more weight to these revelations than I can possibly describe.  The dramatic irony of Gone Home — and I suspect that may not even be what it can be precisely called in this instance — relies on a slowly building stress that couples with the player’s imaginative reconstruction of the events in the house, a stress which is borne not from anything explicit in the game itself, but rather a skillful manipulation of narrative and gaming premises.  Your sister Sam and her girlfriend Lonnie have held their own playful ghosthunts and seances in the mansion, all which lead into their blossoming romance.  For you, however — you the player, who have for so long come to expect these sorts of stories, these sorts of setups, to eventually wrap around and explain something grand about You the Character, why You are the only person who can Save the World — find out that not only are you not all that important, you are kind of silly, too, for expecting something so terrible to have happened.

When I discovered my father and mother were not descending, respectively, into alcoholism and extramarital affairs — as the scraps of letters and other documents I had found suggested — but were merely out of town at a marriage retreat, the sense of relief I felt was more incredibly palpable than anything incited by non-Twine games in the few years.

Even more excited I was when I found out my sister was simply up in the attic in her darkroom, waiting out the storm — I knew she was upset about her girlfriend leaving, but I could find her there, and tell her it would be okay, that I was here now, that things would be okay…

I had completely forgotten all of the evidence I’d noticed before that suggested Sam was gone.  I had forgotten entirely the point some two hours before when I thought to myself, “I bet the sister character ran away from home with her girlfriend.”

I went from room to room in the house and shut off all the lights I had left on, because I was so fucking happy that I was home, and everything was going to be okay.

My sister was gone when I got to the attic.  Of course she was.  I knew very well, from the detention notices from school I’d found, from the diary entries I’d uncovered, that though my parents loved her, they did not understand what she had discovered about herself.  Her final letter told me I had to understand.

And I did.

I cried for this game.  Not in the way I suspected one might cry for Bioshock Infinite, or for The Last of Us — the manner of  “this is sad, because Big Important Things are happening in Big Important Ways” that certain blockbuster films use in an attempt to elicit emotion.

I cried because I realized all of this would have to be explained to my parents, who weren’t going to take it well, but at least they weren’t getting a divorce.  I cried because my sister was gone, because I had missed her, just missed her, and I had never really known her.  I cried because my only available form of support to her was staying where I was, of letting her have her life.

You are left alone at the end of Gone Home.  Your family has moved on quite a bit in the year you were abroad.  Their lives did not stop at your convenience, and they won’t do that now.

Gone Home did something I have wanted a videogame to do for a long time: it made me feel like a goddamned human being.


Christian Thorne on the Gothic Zizek

Christian Thorne has been hammering together what seems to me to be an incredibly handy primer on Slavoj Zizek.  For interested newcomers, the first part can be found here, but the second part on Zizek’s Gothic methodology recently went up, and manages to articulate a lot of what I like about Zizek (and gives me a way of thinking through a lot of current concerns of mine) rather clearly.  I produce a choice bit below, without comment.

We can say, first, that Žižek likes to read Gothic fiction and also the eerier reaches of science fiction—and that’s true, though he precisely does not read them the way a literary critic would. It has always been one of the more idiosyncratic features of Žižek’s thought that he is willing to proclaim Pet Sematary a vehicle of genuine analytic insight or to see in horror stories more broadly a spontaneous and vernacular Lacanianism, in much the same way that old-fashioned moral philosophers used to think of Christianity as Kantianism for people without PhDs. To this observation we can easily add a second: that Žižek himself often reads as though he were writing speculative fiction, as in: You are not an upstanding member of society who dreams on occasion that he is a murderer, you are a murderer who dreams every night that he is an upstanding member of society—though keep reading in Žižek and you’ll also find: torture chambers, rape, “strange vibrating noises.” And yet if we’re taking Žižek at his word, then the point is not just to read Gothic novels, nor yet to write them. We must cultivate in ourselves, rather, a determination to read pretty much everything as Gothic. Once we’ve concluded that horror fiction offers a more accurate way of describing the world than do realist novels—that it is the better realism, a literature of the Real—then the only way to defend this insight will be to read the very world as horror show. It will no longer be enough to read Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson. The Gothic hops the border and becomes a hermeneutics rather than a genre. Anything—any poem, painting, person, or polity—will, if snuck up upon from the right angle, disclose to you its bony grimace.

The Tower of the Blood Lord

I mentioned a while ago that I was going to make a twine game (ie, a hypertext game) about a haunted house, which is a thing I still have in the works.  But in the meanwhile, I’ve made a twine game called The Tower of the Blood Lord, which is based on the time I played the first twenty minutes of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.  Obviously 20 minutes isn’t a lot, so you’ll have to forgive me for some of the liberties I take with the game’s overall narrative arc.

Play it online here.

I figured it’s probably appropriate to lay out some of my thanks and acknowledgements for this project in this space.  I’ve been playing a lot of twine games lately, and they’ve all taught me something about the form (though there’s much more yet to learn, I know).  The first one I played several months ago, for the record, was Mastaba Snoopy by gods17, and I instantly fell in love both with that story and with this platform.

Porpentine‘s work in twine is basically some of the best there is.  Of particular influence on Blood Lord was the rightly famous Howling Dogs, though she does amazing work all the time.  Some I want to point out: All I Want Is for All My Friends to Become Insanely Powerful is beautiful and weird and makes me super stupidly happy every time I play through it.  There’s also (very NWS, and also triggers for some sexual violence, regular violence) Cyberqueen, which is terrifying and darkly hilarious and disgusting and the best System Shock sequel we never got.  J Chastain’s Rat Chaos also moved me in the weird surreal seriocomic way all of Chastain’s work does.

Leon Arnott does a lot of Twine-specific coding, and I’ve used plenty of it in my game.  I explained to a friend that while I was writing and testing it often felt like I was walking into Arnott’s office and digging through his desk while he was too busy doing a sudoku or something to notice me.  Anyway, he has his own usual and striking games.

Very, very good examples of twine games with less of a direct influence on Blood Lord include Anna Anthropy’s Aegis Wing and Conversations with My Mother by Merritt Kopas.  Just in case you were wondering.

Other influences on Blood Lord: Metal Gear Solid, because of videogame military magic realism, John Milton for describing how angels have sex in Paradise Lost, John Crowley’s 600-page fairy tale Little, Big, which I am about two-thirds through and it is rattling in my head a lot, and lastly, the newest album by the Handsome Family, Wilderness.

Also thanks to my friends Spam and Victor for the reading and debugging they did with Blood Lord!!!!

Scare Quotes: Some words on Cabin in the Woods


Cabin in the Woods is a recent-ish film from Lost alum Drew Goddard and perennial geek favorite Joss Whedon.  I say recent-ish because the film was shot in 2009 and then lay on a shelf for three years (as the whisper goes, because the studio wanted to force it into 3D post-processing) until finally seeing release this spring.  The critics and the ever judgmental internet appear to love it, at least as much as they can in our age of useless score aggregation, and the film did reasonably well at the box office.  If you’ve watched the trailer above, you know it’s a little different than your normal Cabin in the Woods-like movie, and if you’ve seen the film then you know how different.  In some ways it is a complicated movie, and it invites a lot of discussion of the horror film genre.  Its major problem is that it is not as prepared as it thinks for the conversation it invites.

If you haven’t yet seen the movie and are averse to spoilers, I would say  stop reading this review now — seriously — because I am going to spoil things pretty hard in the paragraphs to come.  If you want a parting word on the film’s value, I would say it is definitely worth seeing; if you can, make sure it’s in a crowded theater or with another group of first-time viewers.  I went to see CitW on opening weekend, as a reprieve during my finals rush, and it was a wonderful group experience; I overheard more positive chatter on my walk through the parking lot than I have in a long, long time.

I emphasize now: despite the criticism I raise, this films deserves to be seen, especially if you like horror, and especially if you like things that are willing to pursue a crazy line of thought to uncertain ends.

Now hold onto your butts, from here on out I’m going to get insufferable.


Audiences and Ghosts both say “Boo”

Cabin in the Woods is a satirical horror-comedy that aims to criticize the horror-going audiences’ loathing of originality.  The film takes the metatextual “final girl” elements of slasher movies as pioneered by scholar Carol Clover and makes them a part of the plot proper.  It is, of course, not the first horror film to do this — Scream did it in 1996, and The Rise of Leslie Vernon did it in 2006.  CitW’s difference lies in the manner of implementation; whereas in the earlier films the slasher “rules” were laid out simply as unquestionable Law — they were the things you did even if they didn’t make sense — CitW figures them as part of an ancient though questionable ritual to appease some nebulous “Gods” who have retreated from the world and lie dormant, leaving behind only fragmentary nightmares which are then turned jealously on a group of hedonistic teens.

The film makes the point repeatedly that the Gods demand this sacrifice out of some intrinsic loathing of the young protagonists.  They hate their youth.  To deconstruct the usual notion of “cannon fodder” characters in slasher films, CitW makes it a point to show how the teens are forced into their slasher film roles — the intelligent brunette dyes her hair blonde, and the chemicals placed in the dye by the puppet masters reduce her to a stereotype, while her forward-thinking athletic boyfriend is reduced to an alpha-as-fuck jock.  And so on.

The final act of the film comes when the stoner character (designated the “Fool” by the puppetmasters) and the Final Girl descend into the puppetmasters’ extensive underground citadel and release every available monster to wreak havoc.  The director of the puppetmasters attempts to persuade the kids to complete the ritual, for if they don’t the Gods will awake and destroy all existence.  The stoner and the final girl deign not to, instead defeating the director and then smoking a jay while the world ends.  “Let’s give someone else a shot,” they say.  The final shot of the film, then, is an immense human hand tunneling up from Hell, destroying the puppetmasters’ facility, the titular cabin, and the camera.

The significance of an ancient eldritch God’s hand being so human is of course self-evident.  The Gods are the audience who bitches and moans whenever a horror film does not meet their expectations: a group of beautiful young people who indulge in hedonism, show their lithe young bodies, and then are systematically slaughtered by a shadowy displacement of the Id.

This reading of the film is not incorrect, but it ignores certain elements and implications.


“Let’s split up”

As Zizek would tell us, ad nauseum:

It is easy for us to imagine the end of the world — see numerous apocalyptic films — but not end of capitalism.

Should we agree that the satirical reading I offered in the last section is more or less correct, then herein lies Cabin in the Woods‘ greatest problematic.  It engineers a situational conflict (one that may not exist, as I shall argue) and then begs for a solution to this conflict.  But its solution is nothing more than “let the world end.”

Cabin in the Woods is incredibly critical of the machinery of the stereotypical horror film, and at the same time it is far too reliant on this same machinery to actually pose another model of dramatic action.

The film asks for a third way but it cannot seriously propose it. Consider, as I have said, how it makes the college students more than walking tropes so you actually feel bad when they’re manipulated and murdered.  Near the end of the film, when the puppermaster techs feel they have successfully completed the ritual, they  bust out the champagne and hold a party while on the monitors behind them Dana, the chosen Final Girl, is being tortured by the monster du jour.

By figuring the slasher film tropes as a form of punishing ritual (we are told the college kids need to “suffer” to please the Gods), CitW follows in the footsteps of Rene Girard in making human culture copacetic scapegoat ritual and sacrifice.  This sort of sacred violence is something the film appears to reject; if a society needs orchestrations of innocent suffering, then it is not worth perpetuating.  In the scene I just described the sadism inherent in horror films is put on display for critique — but is then immediately thwarted by what is easily the most compelling sequence in the movie, the “purging” nonsense when every available slasher or horror film monster is released on the puppetmasters.  Since the opening of the film, the techs themselves are gestured at as having remarkably mundane lives outside the office, which might at first seem to be attempt to humanize them.

The problem is that the sheer fun of the purge control sequence, the cornucopia of ridiculous slaughter, effaces much if not most or all of the qualms we might have.  Just like the Gods who need to see the teens suffer, we now desire to see the callous old corporate white people suffer — they are the ones scapegoated, they are the new sacrifice.  But the  social order their sacrifice create is, by the film’s own logic, entirely untenable.  The stoner and the final girl have no choice at the end of the film but to let the entire world be destroyed, because as critical as the film is of systems of oppression, as critical as it is of horror convention, it cannot imagine a world without oppression, and indeed, cannot imagine a horror film without convention.

It is a problem the film makes for itself.  The type of slasher flick it critiques hasn’t been popular since at least the late 80s or early 90s, and the film’s main point of reference is The Evil Dead, which in its own way is already as self-aware as this movie.  Furthermore, the past few years have seen plenty of unusual, original films that more ably criticize slasher-centered or sadistic horror films — Inside, Martyrs, Antichrist, though notably CitW is not as hostile toward its viewers as these films — or offer something more off the beaten path — Paranormal Activity, Let the Right One In, The Innkeepers.

CitW, in contrast to these films, does not (consistently or clearly) invite any genuine affective response.  It does not know who it wants us to sympathize with and how, and (here we get a bit subjective) it’s not particularly scary.  It is a very cynical comedy film, really, which uses a horror film backdrop.


“What’s your favorite scary movie?”

Near the end of the film, one of the tech guys encounters a merman.  It has been set up that he wants to see a merman for some reason, so this is obviously Chekhov’s merfolk.  It’s one of the monsters that can attack the kids in the cabin.  After the stoner and the final girl have released said monster, the man is knocked to the floor during the fracas.  He whips around as something scuttles through the gloom toward him; the music rises as it comes into view; it is horrible, unlike any eroticized or romanticized notion of merfolk, a terrible pinch-faced monstrosity with slimy skin and sharp teeth.  This is it, the man has finally seen the merman, and he says…

Something like “Come on” in a disappointed tone.  The music cuts out and the thing unceremoniously chews through his neck.

This whole sequence bothers me for a few reasons.  The first is: why in the hell is this guy disappointed?  What the fuck did the think he was going to see when he saw a merman?  It makes no sense for him to expect a Little Mermaid-style shell-brassiered sea vixen, because everything the puppetmasters keep under locks is a horrifying monstrosity.  What did he expect?  He’s been waiting for this moment, so it should be something sublime, a quasi-religious experience like the one the film’s ritual is meant to instantiate.  Why won’t the film let him be happy at his moment of death — why can’t he be afraid?

In Cabin in the Woods we don’t know where our sympathies lie, with the techs or with the teens, because it makes us laugh at them and cheer at their misfortunes despite ourselves.  We also don’t know if we should genuinely be frightened for the characters because the monsters and terrors, too, are always presented  as in some way laughable, not really scary at all.  It denies both the notion of religious awe and sublime terror.  “Feeling things sincerely is for people who aren’t as detached and hip as us,” the film suggests.  “All this crap from scary movies?  It’s been run into the ground.  It’s not scary at all.”

As much as I think the film wants to celebrate the horror genre, it can’t bring itself to present anything but an ambivalent parody of everything that’s come before it. The entire film is almost literally in scare quotes. It ends up being just a sort of carnivalization of the genre, which is loads of fun certainly, but is not necessarily constructive in the way the film seems to want to be, or to want people to think it is.  I’ve read plenty of reviews saying CitW is a “new story” or a “new genre” — and it isn’t.  A collection of cliches played for laughs has been around a while, and it’s called a parody.

I suppose another way of reading the film, then, would be as a parodic take on the whole post-Scream metahorror phenomenon.  Scream, as I mentioned, popularized the invocation of Clover’s slasher tropes as plot dressing, in that particular franchise’s case as an added layer of complexity to a gruesome murder mystery (which was itself a gesture to the origin point of the slasher film, Hitchcock’s Psycho).  Yet now that we think we know the rules we can invoke them constantly to justify this or that — the dumb woman needs to show her boobs before she gets her throat slit because that’s the rule! — and hey it’s no big deal because we know the rules so we do it ironically.

The problem, of course, is that even if you’re winking and laughing the entire time you’re still following the rules.  You don’t make them go away, you don’t make them any less tired or gratuitous. As the rules and tropes multiply, filling more tightly packed genre compartments, as meta-awareness grows larger and wider, the whole thing literally become more than the filmmaker or viewer can possibly keep under control.  This ironic meta-awareness seeps outward into the genre, until it becomes less a single aspect than it is the genre entirely — and thus horror destroys itself, kicking back to smoke a jay and have a good time, collapsing into the void of its own complacent self-knowledge.

Pride & Prejudice & People


When the zombie apocalypse finally happened
we were so primed for it, culturally speaking
that it almost didn’t happen at all.

At last all the truths universally acknowledged
all the rules of what to shoot and sever
all the jokes and Jane Austen mash-ups meant something.

We’d memorized our escape routes
and plans for barricades
long in advance.

We knew the best way to break a broom handle
and how to stab upward, through the jaw and cranium.
We knew to never turn our backs on the corpse’s corpse.

Years of daily dead-eyed aggression
were unleashed explosively
as we took down our families

our friends and our lovers
and though they were no longer those things
we pretended they were.

Still, in time, there was no denying it
was all over. Then we shuffled back to what we knew
home or office or school, and we

did what we had always done. Old habits
and manners fell back into place
like missing organs.

Now a new viral media craze
has come on so gradually
that we hardly know when it began.

In a recent hit film
a group of surviving scientists
concocts a cure and comes

to overturn our way of life
or rather the thing we have
which approximates it.

One half the world cannot understand
the guilty pleasures of the other
and we admit the premise is ludicrous, yet

now we’re going through all the old Jane Austen
and adding more chapters about the human characters.

Opening lines to short stories I have never finished (yet?)

  • On the day my brother and I were to meet our wives I found the aluminum crutches in the attic over the library, and thus was cast backward into memories of our childhood.
  • “Ouch!” cried the man in front of the firing squad. “Ouch, ouch, ouch!”  Then he fell to the ground, dead.
  • “Is this your first time in the UK?” asked the magician, which was always the question people here asked Sharpe after they’d talked to him long enough to pick up on his accent.
  • Ginger Sparkleshine’s eye is three hundred feet wide.
  • “Gentlemen,” said the scientist, “we have a situation: Google is haunted.”
  • Time is a strange thing — it makes all the difference between a mass murderer and a serial killer.
  • Sarah was on her way home from the library when she first realized there was a clown following her.
  • Ralph Dutch was born on a sunny summer’s day at the age of eight.  The affair was a mess for all involved, particularly Mrs. Dutch, who refused to have children again.
  • We were just across the Vermont-Massachusetts border when my sanity began to crumble and these huge lobster-bugs came swooping out of the hills and flying around the car.  “Holy hell!” I shouted.  “What the fuck are these goddamn things?”
  • Rosemarie Ashfield lay in her bed and watched the dust motes back-flip in the blades of light that filtered through the lace curtains.  She was not entirely sure what year it was, but she knew that outside on the lawn it had to be 1948.
  • Hello my Friend I am writing you about your account in the Auxiliary Christian Bank of Nigeria.
  • One morning Martin woke to discover that, much to his dismay, the entirety of his iTunes library had been converted to black metal.
  • Elizabeth’s first instinct, when she realized her family’s new apartment was alive, was to let her parents discover and deal with the fact on their own time.  But then it ate their cocker spaniel.
  • My wife emitted a high, thin whistle much like a tea kettle, and also like a tea kettle, continued to do so until I took her off the stove.