Near the entrance to my home hangs an odd bit of taxidermy. What appears to be some sort of mutated turtle with a spiked tail climbs the wall under a framed box label for the Cortical Systematics line of Micro Pods. The Micro Pods are of course the latest organic game consoles on the market, which attach directly to the players spinal Bio Port, for the most immersive and intense form of virtual reality gaming known to man. The turtle husk was procured from a Trout Farm, whereby its organs were harvested to grow more Game Pods. Have you played?
These artifacts are of course authentic movie props from the brilliant 1999 David Cronenberg film eXistenZ, featuring Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Have you seen it? The props were procured on eBay after my umpteenth viewing. The soundtrack, composed by Howard Shore, remains on heavy rotation throughout my playlists, all these years after its release. Like most of Cronenberg’s films, eXistenZ also touched a nerve in a very disturbing manner, coiling around my subconscious and tickling at different archetypes, as one would unconsciously poke at a wound to process the different layers of sensation.
In the movie, successful game designer Allegra Geller ( Leigh ) has just released the latest virtual reality product from Antenna Research, a game called eXistenZ. At a seminar, she is shot and escorted to safety by security guard Ted Pikul ( Law ). As her organic Game Pod took a hit during the attack, she must plug in with Pikul to ascertain whether or not the game was permanently damaged. Inside the game, they find their behavior patterns altered by their characters, and when they come across new Micro Pods to plug into their reality becomes even more distorted. As they are hunted by rival game company Cortical Systematics and their double agents, as well as terrorists from a realist resistance faction who believe these games are responsible for the total deforming of reality, they begin to lose their grasp on what is part of the game and what is actually occurring.
As a gamer I was understandably delighted by this innovative film, and hearing Robin Thicke crooning about “Blurred Lines” all summer made me think about my own experiences with the utter distortion of reality. Back in the early 80’s, I was among the many gamers forced by concerned mothers to hand over their Dungeons & Dragons role-playing games after several players became obsessed with their characters. Such was the extent of this hysteria that a slew of generic novels were published about the dangers inherent in this method of gaming, as well as the release of a laughable made-for-TV movie starring a young Tom Hanks. I recently finished one of those novels, Rona Jaffee’s “Mazes & Monsters”, and rewatched the CBS movie on which her bestseller was based ( it still remains one of my guilty favorites ).
In that story, Robbie Wheeling ( Hanks ) completely surrenders to his character, the Holy Man Pardieu. He is no longer able to distinguish the game world from his real one after a night of role-playing in the Pequod Caverns ( and having once lived down the street from one of the former entrances to Cave Of The Winds, I can’t say I didn’t find this method of game play appealing ). Robbie’s friends eventually come to his rescue when his imagined quest takes him to “The Two Towers” ( in reality the World Trade Center ), after stabbing a man he mistook for a “Gorvil”. His friends come to visit after Robbie has healed from this traumatic ordeal and are stunned to find that he still believes he is Pardieu, ready for his next adventure. They play the game one last time until the sun begins to set and all the monsters are dead.
The movie was all the more poignant as it was based on a true story, and I often thought of the kid who disappeared while I watched the Dungeons & Dragons animated program on Saturday mornings. How could someone forget who he was? And yet there have been many times where I’ve also forgotten who I was and what purpose I served. I knew my name and my history, but my identity would become foreign, my clothes dated, as would my hairstyle, peering into a stranger’s eyes in the mirror, nothing more than a cog, a drone. This still happens sometimes, working 9-hour days, Monday through Friday, my mind so absorbed in work and my tasks that I begin to feel insectoid, part of a collective, a character just doing his bit to keep the great wheels turning and nothing more, until my days off, when I wake up and realize I can do anything I want, and I have been asleep far too long.
In eXistenZ, as well as all videogames, virtual characters remain stuck in a game loop until they are interacted with. They might sway ever so slightly, gently bob up and down, pretending to breathe or gesture, enacting pre-programmed routines until prodded, until one approaches them and presses the “TALK” button, their responses another set of pre-programmed answers.
“HAVE YOU FOUND THE KEY?”
“PLEASE, SAY YOU’VE FOUND THE KEY!”
“WHERE IS THE KEY?”
“HAVE YOU FOUND THE KEY?”
You might push them, hit them, shoot them, and after a predictable response they will continue to keep staring dead ahead with blank expressions. I have most likely appeared to others in such a manner, sitting in my car while waiting for a traffic light, staring at the sodium content on a box of frozen food at a grocery, waiting in line at the DMV.
Some of my favorite generic virtual characters to interact with exist in many of the old Nintendo 64 videogames. These characters are obviously far less realistic than those of today, and they often have these funny 2-dimensional faces painted on their polygon heads, their low-tech arm and leg joints similar to marionettes. The N64 backdrops are always a digitized, pixelated mess when you get too close to a wall, painting or prop, and I fell in love with all its blatant virtuality.
The synthetic skin, the way the characters moved like low-budget stop-motion puppets, all of their humble honesty in the way these poor cousins attempted to mimic humanity. I remember salivating before a monitor when an N64 demo was first released, feeling as if I finally had both feet in the future, and now, with much more sophisticated and advanced consoles at my disposal, I can simply appreciate the camp value. Perhaps I’ll be thinking the same thing further into the future when I have my spine fitted out for a Bio Port and I’m holding the first clammy, squirming, bio-organic game pod in my hands, ready to plug in and experience a new form of reality. I see this future already being seeded with the current avatars we are shaping in RPGs, in Nintendo’s Miis , on Xbox Live, on the Playstation Network, on Facebook, every player embracing their virtuality and the freedoms therein in the same way one might embrace a religion.
During one game, I had a couple armed guards escorting me into enemy territory. I had the difficulty setting on “HIGH”, and it took many attempts to break into this futuristic fortress. I would go to bed at night with the feel of the game controls still in my hands, my thumb moving about phantom buttons, wondering what combination of moves would allow me access to a higher level. The guards, stuck in a loop, bobbed together like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, with their guns poised, waiting for me to act, to break their loop, to open up new sets of pre-programmed routines. I stood close enough to examine the dull adobe skin of their faces, and I could see where the seams of their faces met their heads like cheap Halloween masks, wondering what was beneath. How far did their virtual consciousness extend? How much virtual memory did they have? Was there such a thing as virtual souls?
I shoved one of them, his expression unchanging. I shot at him, and listened to him scream in virtual pain, but I was not an enemy, so he did not retaliate. Was he collecting data? What did he think of me pushing him about, messing with him, discharging my laser into his abdomen? I certainly had no remorse in molesting him, giggling as he hopped backward and let out a comical yelp which no doubt the voice actor giggled over after recording it. I continued studying how he was connected, how he waited for the correct response from me, wondering what kind of a mind was behind that crude faceplate. It began to become absolutely surreal, having interacted with GUARD NUMBER 1 so often, for so many hours, that in my dream that evening I found the walls of my astral space flooded with generic, virtual, heavily pixelated paint, GUARD NUMBER 1 swaying at my side. He was unable to move until I entered a certain code into a keypad next to a nearby door. After that, I would have to defeat an enemy, upgrade my weapon and retrieve a key. But in my dream, he stopped doing things for me. I entered several combinations of codes but the door would not open, and I began to fear I might be stuck there myself, in some game loop, unable to breathe in a virtual environment without oxygen.
Fed up, I raised my pistol and fired a bolt of energy into the guard’s stomach. But, instead of screaming while violently jerking backward, then returning to a state of inaction, he slowly turned his head around, black lines of anger painted over his adobe skin, staring at me with cold hostility. He suddenly configured his hand into a point and shoved it into my mouth as a sharp burst of static electricity filled my chest. I could taste burned plastic and rubber, my throat full of ozone as my moans of pain and horror became digitized to the point of sounding like a Speak & Spell, watching as my arms, which desperately tried to hold the guard back, began to take on a synthetic, adobe shade.
When I awoke, I immediately looked about the room, focusing on the texture of my bedroom wall to verify its realism. For a few minutes I studied the surface of things, the detail, the minute pockmarks and scratches, the random blemishes. Random…It still appeared to be painted on in the dim light, and I peeked out my window in paranoia, in time to see the mailman coming up the walk. I had seen him deliver our mail so many times, the predictability of his movements, his mannerisms, nearly generic and pre-programmed. I listened to his whistle, now turned sinister, as I pondered how I would know whether or not I was stuck in a highly realistic videogame. Everyone in my neighborhood, everyone in our world, would each contain a set of pre-programmed responses to religion, to war, to territory. What loop did I currently feel stuck in, and what action could be taken to free myself from it? Most people base their concept of reality around what they can see, and touch, when most everything that matters is invisible. Most people would then never really know whether or not they were being held in a kind of Star Trek Holodeck program. Their reality would then be a series of colored force fields shaded just so, featuring enough blemishes and random indentations on surfaces, replicators providing seamless objects, unknown programmers concealing the ultimate reality.
Regardless, gaming remains one of my favorite methods of escapism. Over the years I have taken down countless robots, zombies, supervillains and monsters. I just can’t think of any other way I might find a cool temp job as a rogue sniper off-planet. Through these pixelated paradises I have been able to wield sleek rocket launchers, force-choke alien bounty hunters, bitch slap demons back to hell and blow enemy warships to smithereens. In missile-heavy pimped-out hovercraft I detailed myself I have been able to clear the streets in my virtual neighborhood of any road ragers who made the mistake of threatening me or following too closely. Don’t we all at one time or another think about how handy intimidating little rockets coming out of our headlights might be when cut off in traffic? How we long to be able to deploy spiked chains or minibombs from the back of our cars, to have submachine guns popping out the sides, to operate hidden pipes under our vehicle that might spray slippery oil or black fog? And at what point does the fantasy override the reality, as it did for Robbie Wheeling ( in reality James Dallas Egbert III )?
I have a passion for horror movies, for anything scary, really, and most of my favorite videogames are survival-horror. I am able to play them just before bed. I love listening to soundtracks from Poltergeist, The Shining, Silence Of The Lambs and others. I am able to fall asleep to this music. One might think such stimulation might influence my dreams in a negative manner, except I also love nightmares. As I will write about in an upcoming blog, I was once able to visit the nightmarish township of Silent Hill after playing the videogame for a week straight, surprised as that disturbing virtual world began to interlace with my own. I even found actual buildings I had dreamt about, and knew exactly where the door was which connected my dream world with my waking one. Still, how can I, with such stimulation, and my own catalog of brutal life experiences, come out of an ultraviolent videogame and have a refreshing nap while others are taking arms and gunning people down?
As a SpiritChaser I often talk about the nature of fear and our responses to it, how it has the incredible power to utterly distort and contaminate our reality and to make us do things. Not simply bounding over tall fences like superheroes when we feel our lives are in danger, but staying with an abusive or uncaring person for years and years, sacrificing our dignity, freedom and happiness because we are too afraid to be alone. I often ask myself uncomfortable questions so that I don’t bat an eye when others do. I can deal with unfortunate situations because they empower me to find creative solutions to them. I don’t mind running through the dark hallways of my dreams being chased by monsters representing different aspects of my psyche for I know that eventually I will turn around and ask, “WTF?”
The escapism I seek is healthy, and necessary, from the tailgaters on the highway, from oblivious consumers who bar me from products with their shopping carts, from a squabbling Congress, from petty tyrants, from the entitled, the greedy, the insensitive, the cruel. I know they exist to teach me a myriad of things, including patience, and they are simply mirror reflections of the worst of myself. We exaggerate in them what we don’t wish to see in ourselves. Still, when I’m in the game, I have quite good aim…
In one of performance artist Laurie Anderson’s thrilling segments from “Stories From The Nerve Bible”, she speaks about being detained at an airport during the 90’s with the “Superbowl coverage of the Gulf War” on every monitor. She talks about the camera-outfitted, precision-perfect guided missiles able to televise the finding of their every target. They had at last made war cosmetically appealing for the MTV era. Now there are a plethora of army recruitment commercials in which eager young pyros are invited to perform battle simulations as easily as they do videogames, then go out and do it “for real”. During U2’s ZOO TV tour, Bono and The Edge were watching television together in their hotel room as a young soldier was being interviewed about the new technologies available to his unit during wartime. Simulations aside, he was asked what it was like to witness and interact with these new precision instruments of destruction, viewing the remote bombings through electronic night scopes and missile cameras, from monitors in tanks and helicopters.
“It’s so realistic,” he commented.
Later I will find my flesh the color of dull, synthetic adobe, glowing in some apocalyptic firelight, my body gently heaving up and down as I breathe in virtual oxygen, a warm game control vibrating in someone’s hands, and I know that within an hour I will have replaced one reality for another. Unable to distinguish which is which when I dream of them, my dream yet another version of reality like a Micro Pod inserted directly into my back, I will hear an eerie whistle. My mailman is coming, with a delivery for me. As I enter my waking life to greet him, the mutated turtle remains in suspended animation near my doorway. The mailman will have the same pre-programmed response he always has for me.
There is a man who cowers for his life in eXistenZ, while Allegra and Pikul aim their guns at him, and he desperately asks if they are still in the game. His answer is met with silence, the silence of doubt, as they are ultimately unsure of the answer. When I hear that whistle down my street I remember what it felt like to game so much that horizons became blurred and my only purpose was to find some key. What’s more disturbing is when I lie down to sleep, the gates of my dream world opening wide to greet me, seamless in the way it transitions from the real world to the astral, and I hear that whistle at night, when there are no mailmen about, and I wonder of the myriad of realities I am stepping in and out of, which one I will awake to.