Amoeblog


A Few More Thoughts on Technology and Realism: Pac-Man and Surrogates Trailer

Posted by Charles Reece, August 9, 2009 10:16pm | Post a Comment
pac-man game  pac-man skeleton death

I gave up playing video games when I encountered the second button. I was alright with jumping, but combination moves and shit like that tended to take me out of the formal (as in Platonic) perfection of a Pac-Man or Space Invaders. If I want gritty (as in non-Platonic) realism, I'll read Bukowski, or watch a Cassavetes film. I've since played a few of these realistic "moving" games where one drives through a simulated real city, running into other cars or over innocent bystanders (other variations of this game type have the player as a superhero, vigilante, soldier, or cute creature on some ostensible quest -- e.g., killing zombies -- but they're more about just moving through a virtual environment). The only thing they add to the endless struggle (at least, ideally) of a little round guy eating dots is more detail -- the ontology remains unchanged. Pac Man already had the truth of its and the player's existence written into its elegant design. That is, it said everything that needed to be said: keep playing, desire can now be quantified by the score; the goal never changes, nor will you ever get closer to it, no matter how fast things start moving.

Speaking of existence being reduced to the score, the reknowned junkie William S. Burroughs once narrated a video game based on the writings of Edgar Allen Poe called The Dark Eye. Looks interesting, although I hear it bombed:


But back to the yellow fellow: Speed, color scheme and fruit are pretty much the only differences in its levels. The game's "progression" is a matter of pseudoindividuation: slight variation to keep the player committed to/distracted from/entertained by the standardization. The techno-realism of a Grand Theft Auto only adds more complex layers of novelty to Pac-Man, bogging the player down with data (more places to visit, more visual detail, more complex controls), keeping him or her lost in the details. If Pac Man was sortcronenberg existenz poster of an existential map, the purpose of which was to lead us temporarily away from life's troubles, the more realistic derivations seem to be moving us in the direction of cyberpunk dystopias, where the map (virtual reality) is just as convoluted as the mapped (old-fashioned reality), eventually rendering any distinction seemingly useless, like in David Cronenberg's eXistenZ. Most games now have to supply the player with a map, so can the possibility of getting lost "in there" be that far off? And isn't that the fantasy behind realism, to get lost within the simulated reality, to not be able to distinguish the depiction from the depicted? If reality can't be controlled, substitute its image, which (supposedly) can, or, to appropriate Theodor Adorno once again:

Reality becomes its own ideology through the spell cast by its faithful duplication. -- "The Schema of Mass Culture"

I remember a bunch of criticism directed towards the blandness of Cronenberg's design for the gaming environment in his film, that it looked too plain. However, I took his point to be Adorno's: that no matter how much a game (or movie, or any other art) allows us to fantasize about being in control over our surroundings, someone else is doing the programming that sets the rules. The technologically enhanced realism furthers the fantasy, while ultimately decreasing our (the players') control on reality. The endgame of this fantasy -- where reality itself becomes its own simulation for our avatars to play in -- is the conceit of the new Bruce Willis vehicle, Surrogates (adaped from a comic book):


An intriguing idea, even if the execution looks like standard Hollywood sci-fi cheese. I guess what I've been angling for is this: If one of our primary fantasies is being in control, then it would seem that its logical, utlimate, fantastic realm would not look like some weird alien world, or an abstract dimension of colors and shapes (such as Pac-Man or TRON), but exactly like the one we know, only without any of the risks and vicissitudes of the real deal. That's why with all the technological innovations in film production, with a near boundless samuel r delanypotential to create increasingly bizarre (ir)realities, the fantasy genre (in which I'd put science fiction, cartoons and whatever else I've been talking about lately) has been getting more realistic. Barring the occasional fetishist, I suspect most people would have sex with a simulated human on Star Trek's holodeck, not some sentient squid creature. Rather than expanding, or questioning, the predisposed ideas wrapped up in our common conception of reality as a good fantastic yarn can do (e.g., pick one of Samuel R. Delany's books), the realistic capabilities of technology are limiting the possibilities of imagination, of counterfactual situations, to think outside the box, when it makes the fantasy look like reality.

Thus, when it comes to diversionary entertainment, Pac-Man remains for me the most virtuous example, its abstract design never letting the player forget the line between simulation and reality. It might distract us from ideological concerns, but at least it doesn't indoctrinate us.

Relevant Tags

Existenz (1), Theodor Adorno (2), Fantasy (23), Video Games (25), Technology (8), Realism (8), Samuel R. Delany (1), Pac-man (1), David Cronenberg (3), Surrogates (1), Science Fiction (14), Cinema Criticism (32)