Echo, Return to the Mountain
When I initially pitched this essay, I told Aevee that I wanted to write a blog-burner, an RSS incinerator, the kind of piece that scorches every fiber optic cable it touches, leaping from screen to eyes as a blinding flash of light that tattoos the brain with a single, perfect idea that forces neurons to reroute all datum through this new nexus of reality. It was going to be the Truth, with a big old capital T, and it was going to be for real.
I was going to write the full definition of a great work in videogaming, a complete synthesis of forty years of good work in the medium combined with the distilled fruits of ten thousand years of human culture. It was going to be a master text, a labyrinth, a floor-to-ceiling mirror of the human soul writhing in desire.
This came about at the end of last April, in finer times. Three days after I put my last essay up on the internet, I was feeling pretty good. After five years of thwarted ambition, depression, desperation, and endless failure as the hooks of reality slowly set in amidst an economic downturn that didn’t even pretend to keep me enfranchised while it moved on to more suitable candidates—because there are thousands of more-talented writers who are willing to apply their considerable skills to total garbage for bad pay, and who have a better attitude about it than I ever will—after all that, after moving to Alaska to attend grad school and get an MFA as a last-ditch attempt at some sort of career in writing, only to find that even at the top, with terminal degree in hand and keys to the classroom, it would still a miserable struggle built upon pandering to an audience that was equal parts lazy and uninterested; after all that, I wrote the essay and felt free. Light. I felt like I could quite literally do anything with my life.
I’d even started to, even before I finished the essay. I’d been working out. I’d gotten a smartphone and was figuring out my “social media presence.” I’d been getting my RSS content stream together and actually reading it in a sincere effort to be on top of the hubbub, tapping into the vein of data that defines, shapes and directs the long-term currents of our lives. I was, perhaps, on my way to living a full and engaged life.
Even moreso, I’d gotten a few positive notices in response to the essay, primarily in the form of retweets and golf claps. One in particular was Aevee, whose interest extended to an offer of money in exchange for me writing something for Zeal. It was more than anyone had ever offered for my writing in my entire life, and it was amazing.
And so there I was on a Friday morning in Fairbanks, Alaska, thinking about my new life as a happy person who was paid for his efforts, putting together the golden kernel of my Alpha essay on videogames as I crossed the street from the local cafe to my job, where a long winter was finally coming to an end. I don’t just mean that metaphorically: winter had begun last October, when the town had sunk into six months of sub-zero temperatures and darkness, and was just that week petering out into a late Spring. Most of the snow had already melted, and all that was left were scant patches of ice that dwindled by the day. By the following Monday, they would’ve all been gone and I wouldn’t have gone all slippedy-doo and wrecked my knee.
The most irritating thing was that it wasn’t even the first time I’d fallen over that morning. It wasn’t even the second. I’d already fallen over twice on some slippery, moist, invisibly thin layer of melting ice on my way to work under the morning sun, and it didn’t even hurt. I just fell on my ass, laughed, and went on my jolly way. If things had gone differently, why, who knows what might have happened. The sky was the limit! In an alternate reality, I’m famous by now. Maybe I wrote the quintessential piece of philosophy about videogames and was invited to live on the International Space Station, for the purposes of testing the effect of gaming in space. Maybe I stopped being a basket case (a la Basket Case (1982), where the basket case in question was literally a mutant that lived inside a basket) and became a famous digital media personality, and could afford a haircut, and I could be on the front cover of Nintendo Power right now, eating dango off of the tip of Miyamoto’s erect penis, flipping you off with both fingers while liquid metal drips from my raw eye sockets, which have been emptied out and refilled with brass spheres. Underneath it all is big headline that trumpets, “Most Loved Man in America.”
What happened, what literally happened, was this: I was holding a piece of cranberry shortbread in one hand and a small tub of blueberry salad dressing in the other. I’d brought a salad from home and thought this salad dressing would be a nice treat on a Friday morning. I took two steps off of the street and into my work’s parking lot and then slipped on a patch of ice. I leaned my weight onto one leg in an effort to maintain my balance and felt a kind of meaty crunch in my knee, a kind of pop that is similar to what it feels like to bite down on a piece of cartilage on the knobby party of a chicken leg, which is exactly what happened: the cushion of cartilage that sits between the upper and lower leg bones got pinched and popped, ruptured. My leg gave out and I fell back, onto my ass. I believe what I said was “shit!”
I rolled over onto my side and saw the totality of my personal tragedy. My food, it was just—it’d gone everywhere. The small tub of delicious salad dressing had exploded and spattered across the gravel, and my shortbread had come unwrapped and broken into five pieces, also all over the gravel. That, and my knee also hurt like a motherfucker, and my dreams of a nice breakfast were completely fucking ruined. I shouted FUCK and pounded the ground, because that was exactly whose fault this whole goddamn thing was, and tried to get up, which wasn’t really happening because I’d just wrecked my knee.
Three months later, following surgery and physical therapy, I was deemed rehabilitated by my surgeon and awarded a one percent permanent disability in the state of Alaska, which entitled me to a check for about eighteen hundred dollars. My surgeon said if I’d been rated one hundred percent permanently disabled (for example: dead), the payout would’ve been for $177,000. I asked him how they figured that out, black market organ prices? He said he didn’t know. We laughed, I took the check, my knee still doesn’t quite work.
There’s a sequence from Grant Morrison’s The Filth that I think about a lot. The book is a comic about a man who is searching for his true, authentic, real self while he has simultaneously been inducted into The Hand, which is a secret, para-dimensional organization that holds reality together by containing leakages of filth before it can spread and corrupt society. What this means is they go around in neon wigs while shooting visionary sociopaths and having ritualistic sex. It’s a comic book, okay?
The sequence in mind is a sub-plot that involves Adam, aka Secret Original, the Superman-esque star of a comic within the comic. In the comic (as opposed to the comic-comic), he has gone through a portal from his 2D comic world into the 3D comic world that The Filth takes place in. This traversal has left him crippled. In his former reality he was a construct of comic-prime, a muscular übermensch who could fly, had x-ray hearing, was super intelligent, hyper altruistic and apogee everything; he was everything we might wish we could be. He was a classic self-sacrificial hero, someone who had been given the collective gifts of the universe and chose to use them for the good of society.
Now, in 3D space, he is a shadow of his former self. Shriveled, crippled, wrapped in bandages, and immobile beyond his motorized wheelchair. What remains are a smattering of abilities and his memories. At night, he rereads issues past and weeps for everything that was lost. By day, he cowrites further stories alongside The Hand, manipulating the lives of his former comrades, those symbols of people, those bearers of ideas, for all the drama they’re worth.
When Moog, an agent of The Hand, tries to send Secret Original back to the comic world, Adam says,
I don’t want things to change, Moog. In 2-space, I’m invulnerable to all feeling; here, every single moment of existence is agony and blinding, obscene arousal. I don’t want “first contact” with my past life. I want things to stay this way forever…. I was a mighty do-gooder. I lived in the sky and everyone loved me. Now I piss in my trunks and no one changes me for days. All this time trying so hard to smile through the pain, to stay true to my characterization…and then just the other day, I took one more look at the contents of my bowel bag and I realized—I’m not a handsome hero anymore. I’m an ugly villain, Moog. I’m a monster.
And then Eve, his Lois Lane-esque girlfriend, stumbles out of the 2D-to-3D portal. Her body is like pulled taffy, twisted and flattened in parts, others separated at the meat in the process of translating 2D comic anatomy into 3D real anatomy. She groans his name, says she feels funny.
Adam is stricken. Caught between his past life’s love for Eve and his new existence as tormented mastermind, he says he can explain everything and then blows his head off.
All of which is to say that by the time I wasn’t perpetually on percocet, or lamenting how my knee was never going to work again, or moving to Oregon, five months had passed since the initial invitation to Zeal. My flight from a future in the literary arts had started to feel like a flight from everything, and returning to the once-grand notions of my magnum opus had become a desperate struggle with myself over what exactly my point had been in the first place. It had been so clear in April, and yet now I sat staring at my word processor, musing on the grandness of my design while wondering what was supposed to go in it.
Paragraph after paragraph of nonsense flowed forth, and I realized the essay was on a slow elevator to hell. The progression of ideas as I stumbled around was getting loopier and loopier, and I’d started to postulate bizarre theories about how things came to be. Was Super Mario Bros. the false prophet of Nintendo, a sinister herald serving a dark god whose unspeakable, secret power-name is Unfun, aka our eternal enemy? Was Facade an allegory about the facade of player agency in a constructed world that has limited inputs? Is the fundamental dialogue between player and game not about agency, but power? Was the real travesty of “No Russian” that it simultaneously gave us all of the power and none of it? Was “No Russian” the exact moment when the medium found the tender nexus of its own strength, the embryo of its own pre-natal Citizen Kane?
I’d somehow metamorphosed into a Barton Fink-esque character, trying to write my way into the shadow of an ideal, a wisp of a thought, gradually losing contact with reality. I’d become convinced that if I could only find the exact right angle into the thing, the rhetorical seed of the unified theory of videogames, that I would somehow end the artificial divide between me and the Charlie Meadows of the world, those working-man Call of Duty fans that put the bread on the game dev table and spin the economic treadle. It’d even gotten to the point where my IRL career goal had gone from being in the publishing industry to some sort of outdoors, physical labor job. The exact career was unclear, but I was having fantasies about being sweaty, tired, and then coming home to read some shit I couldn’t even read while I was still unemployed and terminally bored; stuff like Tristram Shandy, 2666, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. Grand, complex works that I would imagine falling into at the end of my weary, working-class days. Madness.
Although madness is only a delusion unsupported by evidence, and I felt like “No Russian” truly was my evidence. I’d written before about the level, albiet how it was symptomatic of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s design, which is to say the ludonarrative equivalent of stepping in dog poo. I’d scoffed at the time because the ludonarrative possibilities of player agency are the last stop, right? Was I wrong, or wasn’t it called a controller for a reason?
Was I about to reconsider my stance on “No Russian” being the ultimate travesty in game design? Was “No Russian,” with its willful frustration of everything we have come to expect in games—that we know ourselves, that we are who we appear, that we may exert some control over the proceedings, that we express ourselves through our actions—was this dog shit on the heel of my hand actually symptomatic of a great work in the medium, something that challenged the very assumptions that are inherent to the player-game dialectic?
You can see how it became necessary to take a step back, maybe go outside and look at some trees. Maybe I took a huge breath of clean Portland air, looked around at the squirrels, at people who happily rode to and fro on bicycles, at the deep blue sky and thought “this is enough” before going back inside and calmly destroying my computer.
Or maybe I should invite you to imagine me as a priest, stepping out onto a walkway to light a cigarette with shaking hands before huffing out a cloud of smoke; later, flipping through some sort of religious text and mumbling to myself. I pause on a passage and read it aloud, look up and say “oh God. It’s true.” Cut to me ripping off my frock and throwing it in the air before leaping naked onto slip-n-slide made of flesh and J-Lube, the frock levitating on a breeze, blowing away as I descend.
Or maybe neither.
The story of BJ Blazkowicz is like a more realistic version of Secret Original’s.
Hot on the heels of Wolfenstein 3D (1992), Spear of Destiny (1992), Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001), and Wolfenstein (2009)—in which each scenario featured our man single-handedly stopping various Nazi weapons programs while killing several divisions of soldiers and multiple name-brand Nazi commanders, all while spitting out one liners like a mouthful of sand—Wolfenstein: The New Order (2014) opens with BJ participating in a last-ditch Allied raid on the fortress/weapons lab/terror island of his old nemesis, Doctor Deathshead. Since Wolfenstein (2009)’s aborted jaunt with extradimensional dark energies, things have gone pear-shaped for the Allies. Deathshead’s miraculous survival of an exploding/crashing blimp has enabled him to make significant developments in the fields of cybernetics and huge robots, giving the Fourth Reich the edge it needed to kill everyone else. At this point in fiction-dimensional World War 2 history, either the Allies (i.e. BJ) kill Deathshead, blow up the lab, and stop the march of the übermenschen in their tracks, or it’s curtains for apple pie, spotted dick, and other national desserts.
I use “realistic” lightly.
Considering what happens next, it’s a pretty good opening. After about thirty minutes of guiding BJ through typical WW2 stuff (a simultaneously aero and nautical beach landing, scaling the beachhead/castle walls, shooting Nazis in the dick throughout a series of castle hallways), he takes some shrapnel in the belfry and winds up comatose in a mental ward. Over a time-lapsed sequence that spans years of vegetative sitting, BJ launches into a melancholic voice over about how time passes, how war never changes, and how the Nazis won the big contest. He is sad that things went down that way, and would do something about it if he could, but he can’t, and overall he is content to sit in that chair, staring out a window, finally at peace.
It feels like it’s almost time to roll the credits on this sad tale when a bunch of Nazis burst in and tell the staff and patients that the asylum is slated for immediate liquidation, due to being infested with mudbloods, muggles, heffalumps, and other weird shit no Aryan in his or her right mind would want to risk their grandchild interbreeding with. To drive the point home, they use some derogatory language about people with mental health problems and also start killing everyone. BJ sits there, jus’ chillin’, watching blood spatter all over white hospital stuff and listening to the hopeless screams of the weak, wishing it’d all be over. That is, until a Nazi puts a gun to his head, at which point BJ knocks the gun away, takes the guy’s Nazi-knife from its belt holster, and stabs him in the neck a few times. The Nazi falls over gurgling, and our hero stands up from his wheelchair while crapping a one-liner, like one and half decades of muscular atrophy didn’t just happen, and we’re back in action. Us and BJ. Just like last time.
What follows is familiar, to both us and BJ. We join up with the resistance, where it’s quickly established that we are the baddest motherfucker out there, a real ball-breaker, a true-blue Nazi nut-crusher, and the only person capable of carrying out the rebellion’s plans. We break into and out of inescapable prisons, military bases, extraterrestrial bodies. We sneak around and shoot thousands of bad people (preferably in the nuts/dick, but anywhere will do), all the while getting shot, bit and blown up several times over. In the end, we even save the world from Deathshead again.
And yet, time changes things. BJ came out the other side of catatonia pushing fifty to find himself doing exactly what he’d been doing since he was a young man: killing Nazis and watching his friends die. The player can’t directly acknowledge this—there aren’t any actions that are unrelated to killing things—but BJ does. He talks to himself during lulls of violence, remembering things from his childhood, waxes poetic about the nature of war as he watches the smoke clear from a bomb, acknowledging the endless cruelty that appears to be part and parcel of being human. He dreams of having a house, a wife, a kid, a hammock. Other times he dreams of his genesis, where he appeared from the ether with a pistol in one hand and a knife in the other, somewhere deep inside a castle; dreams in which he almost always dies before he wakes. He isn’t miserable so much as melancholic, and I had the sense that he would rather be anywhere else, doing anything else, if he didn’t know that the resistance was relying on him and him alone, and that there was no other option but for him to adopt the role of superman and do what needed to be done.
It’s through his voice-overs that the game makes a point of letting us know that BJ is not us, and we aren’t BJ. We may be in control of him, but it’s the same kind of control that comes from duty and responsibility. He wishes he could stop, but keeps going because he knows that the alternative is worse. It comes as no surprise that at the end, after taking a close-range grenade blast, BJ decides to take the out. He’s survived worse, but this was the last.
As he watches the surviving rebels load into a helicopter, he radios in and tells command that they are clear to nuke what’s left of Deathshead’s lab. BJ rolls onto his back, closes his eyes, and waits.
At this point, I’m not sure how much of this essay is true. I mean, at heart all of it is true, I didn’t mislead anyone about anything that I thought meant something, or which didn’t represent some kind of truer truth than what really trued. But it gets to a point where not all of it fits, and there isn’t a fact important enough in the world that can survive the momentum of a good narrative train. Things start coming together, connections upon connections are made, and suddenly there’s no room to talk about how interesting it is that BJ almost does find peace in his world, that he meets a woman who loves him, a svelte assassin to his cube-necked slaughterer; or how “No Russian” is but one of a slew of AAA games that have addressed this player/player-character divide, a divide that is worked over and over to implicate and guilt the player via a strawman argument (cf. Spec Ops: The Line); or the strange void of information from all of the doctors I encountered about what exactly happened to my knee that day on the ice, or why; or how fundamentally narcissistic this whole enterprise has been, and how narrative is so often the only way into and through our thoughts, even when there was no story in the first place.
A common analysis of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s opening shot is that it is the viewer staring at the mirrored shadow of their own head, reflected back as their face obscured. The illusion is this: light from the projection box is cast towards the screen, where it strikes the back of the head, casting a long shadow that hits the screen as a figure that resembles a backlit planet. As the image continues to unfold, a sun rises from behind the planet and casts a small circle of light right back into the projector’s aperature. Back and forth, reality and projection, with the viewer caught in between and left to parse which is more real, which one illuminates more.
It’s the same infinite loop that is at the heart of Plato’s Theory of Forms and its attendant Allegory of the Cave. The theory suggests that everything we experience is nothing but a shadow cast from an eternal, perfect Form that exists only in the ether, a plane which itself exists in a dim corner of the mind. Every chair but an aspect of the Chair, every dog a facet of the Dog. Truth lies in flooding this corner with as much light as possible, with developing a comprehensive view of the Form in question, because they are the fundamental essence of all things. If a Form can be fully understood, then any statement about it is de facto truth.
Meant to illustrate the theory, the allegory tells of a group of people who are held prisoner in a cave. The only contact they have beyond each other are with shadows that are projected onto the wall in front of them. This ongoing shadow play is their reality, and it is from the shadow play that they derive truth and meaning. One day, a prisoner escapes the cave only to find that the things they saw as a single color in two dimensions were the remnants of an obscured panoply of forms, each of which existed in a wide realm as a full spectrum of color, texture, sound, and smell, and that all of it was illuminated by an enormous light in the sky. The prisoner returns to tell the inmates, but they insist that what is inside the dark cave is real, and that beyond is fantasy.
There was an essay here, at some point, about a good work in video games. I know that much. Where it went is hard to say. At some point it just became about a few moments in the last five months of my life. It’s a mystery what happened here, insofar as I know what happened, and why it happened—even how it happened—but I’m still confused that it all turned out like this, a circular longing for something more than a mirror, but less than a shadow.
But so, every story must end somehow. Here is one last tale, one which I can promise to be complete and true:
After Alaska didn’t pan out, my partner and I decided to move to Portland, into a nice little five unit building in a quiet neighborhood filled with young people who are just like us: educated artists in an extended adolescence. My upstairs neighbor spent a month trying to hook me up with his weed dealer for reasons that I don’t understand, but am willing to chalk up to him wanting to share how awesome it is for someone to deliver weed to one’s door, which it turns out is pretty great.
So far, Portland life is slow. I’ve put off getting a job so that I can write this essay, and also because I dislike looking for work, and so I spend most of my time either fiddling around in a word processor or playing games obsessively, going well into the dawn hours. My partner goes to work while I sleep and my savings dwindle, and at night I take care of this last bit of business before I make my first baby steps towards putting together a life beyond the dissolved dreams inherent to dropping out of an MFA program.
We’d been talking about what our next project might be, my partner and I, when I was struck by the image of our rude neighbor nextdoor, marching past our window with his penis hanging out of the jeans hole. I mean, not literally, it didn’t actually happen, but in my head I pictured exiting our apartment and turning just as he was approaching to pass by our door, on his way to the building’s parking lot with his penis hanging out. It was hilarious. The guy was such an anal-retentive and self-absorbed hipster, the kind of person who thought he deserved two of the five parking spots, and that his (severely mediocre) opinions on music ought to be heard at all hours of both day and night. I almost wished it was true. I told my partner and asked “what would you even do?”
“Well, why would he just be walking around naked?”
“No, he has pants on. His penis is just hanging out of the hole.”
She laughed. “Okay, but why is it hanging out?”
“It’s unclear. Maybe he forgot. Maybe he has something really important he needs to tell the world, and it’s the only method he has. Let’s just say it’s there.”
“Sticking out of the jeans hole.”
“I mean, if you were leaving our place to go to the laundry room or something and suddenly there he was, walking by fully clothed but with his penis hanging out, what would you do? How would you react?”
“Is it erect?”
“His penis? No.”
“Well if it’s limp, I might not even notice it immediately.” She thought for a moment. “I dunno. What would you do?”
“Oh man.” I paused, laughed. I could picture myself exactly. “I’d be like, ‘ohhhh boy’ and go right back inside.”
Later that night, by which I mean sometime after 7am the next day, I had a dream where I’d just gotten a really great idea for an essay, something about the zeitgeist of our times, but had to write it in that neighbor’s apartment. There was something about the apartment that was ground zero about the whole thing, and so I had no choice but to go next door and knock.
The neighbor opened the door and he was totally naked, although he didn’t acknowledge there was anything weird about it. He scratched one hairy nipple and asked what was up. I told him about my essay, what the deal was with his place being the nexus of it, and asked whether it’d be okay if I hung out on a couch and wrote. He said yeah totally, and invited me in.
At this point the dream shifted, as they often will, and I had decided that I should bring over a bunch of crappy DVDs for us to watch, stuff that was a knock-off of a knock-off of other mediocre genre films. I entered his apartment and put on some sort of alligator movie, and then all of these roommates started coming downstairs to the living room, and all of them are middle-aged scenesters who never grew out of their scene attire. There was a craggy surfer, a jaundiced rockabilly guy, a circa-2000 hipster in a striped sweater, a goth, and then an assortment of other guys in faded t-shirts that had gotten stretched out over the years. I was nervous about how this shitty movie would go over, but everyone seemed to think it was funny and very entertaining, and I started to feel like I belonged.
My neighbor suddenly announced “father’s home!” and in walked John Goodman, who was wearing a crown and a velvet cape. I couldn’t believe it. I walked over and shook his hand, and said, “Hello, my name’s Greg. It is a huge, huge, pleasure to meet you.”
John Goodman laughed and said yes. Yes it is.