Bridging Worlds: On Returning
In the world of Ready Player One Earth’s culture has basically been disappeared. Far from being the ever-changing, locally defined, melange that most historians like Arnold Hauser in Social History of Art have come to understand as the last 2000 years of art, there is but two options remaining. One is being a level 99 wizard while watching John Hughes movies and playing arcade games (recreations of them, actually), the other is being a culturally-devoid corporate slave. This hyper-bifurcated portrayal is in large part because the “good” Willy Wonka-type character, James Halliday, whom the novel mythologizes as the most important cultural producer in history, is, platitudes aside, a middle aged white guy who screams at and even fires his employees for not knowing specific lines from PG-rated 80s movies and who spends his entire life fuming inside because his friend “got the girl” from their college Dungeon & Dragons group fifty years earlier. His dying wish, the whole McGuffin that drives the novel, is overtly stated as a way to make the whole world love what he loves which is the suburban-safe, top-100-nerd culture of the 70s and 80s.
In the face of idolizing such an autocratic creator-diety-genius who so completely devalues anything outside of himself, any other competing or more current cultural points of view, art, or subculture, past, present and future (including the inevitable rise of China and India, covered so well in books like River Of Gods) seem to have been removed as inconvenient. Oh, and this is still a world where nerd girls are as good, but not quite as good, at all facets of being a fan as their male brethren. All of which is so unrealistic, so unimaginatively rooted in the past, so impossibly anti-empathetic, that it clearly highlights Jameson’s correlation between art in sci-fi and the complexity of the author’s imagined future.
The novel’s portrayal of subcultural art —this edited-for-TV version of the chaotic jungle of American subculture— was another of the main reasons for my bristling at Ready Player One’s vision of the “geek” underground. What made it so damn uncomfortable for me, was that it was basically watching lived history being erased in favor of some reified monovalent Hollywood-ized, whitebread, parent-friendly version of the 80s and 90s underground stripped of all the weirdness and complexity which made it so vital. As someone who was has seen the overlap between video game nerds, rave DJs, otaku, D&D players, zine makers, and Sonic Youth fans (partially because I’ve been all these things!) the notion of a singular Buzzfeed-style nerd canon handed down from a billionaire-anti-social-obsessive-wizard-from-on-high seems like a personal attack on the very history that it claims to portray.
After all, if you take a quick glance at history, anime fandom gets its start partially in the Berkley acid rock community and partially in the Texas military bases; comic shops and head shops share a common ancestor; punk skaters wrote zines about hardcore and hentai; metalheads and Warhammer 40K players are all part of the same basement ecosystem; Rocky Horror Picture Show was a part of a much larger midnight movie phenomena alongside John Waters and Jodorowsky; Congress equally wanted to censor rap, animation, and video games; and Monty Python were notorious lovers of Dada, romping though gender-queering performances and anti-religious work more than routines about coconuts in Holy Grail; just to mention a few. It is critical to understand that these subcultures are constantly being born, interacting, splitting, mutating, in a broad cultural ecosystem.
In Otaku No Video, the other beloved paean to pop culture which tells a fictional account of the rise of the Gainax (a famous anime production house), the impulse to evangelize the world to the joy of otaku-dom is by starting a bedroom animation company and growing that through hard work - that is, producing. While in Ready Player One, it is consumption that is lauded through the use of a spectacular contest where a rich man is offering unfathomable wealth to those who consume the most thoroughly. Doesn’t it seem odd that the man most known for his creation of games would want a steward that merely plays games, and doesn’t make them? That is one of the most quintessential fantasies of every game/band/comic fan (myself included): that their creator-hero will ask them to use their character designs, magically jump on stage to play the solo, want to hear about their super hero idea pitch, all without having gone through the arduous task and struggle of learning to create something. Isn’t that one of the biggest complaints of anyone working in the video game world? That is, when fans take to twitter to harass a designer for a fault in a game (perceived or real) the players, no matter how skillful they are, often have the most difficulty understanding the realities and complexity of actually making games?
Even though we formulate so much of our cultural past through the lens of “teenage rebellion” or “youthful passion” we tend to take a simplistic view of its effects and either completely trivialize (such as when we talk about a “phase”, or “outgrowing,” something) or grandly mythologize (such as pretty much every version of the 60s presented in Western media) the choices we make and the way they affect us decades later. Certainly Ready Player One does, merely insinuating that we should live in a stasis-world of our youthful media fetishes. But fandom has always been something more complex, more self-generating, more radical, and more meaningful than a series of best-of lists. Outside of some academic texts, such as William Jenkins’ classic work on Star Trek, historically it is very rare to see a complex vision or understanding of the many aspects that make up any fandom (though recently that has been changing). Which is why Gone Home leapt out in such stark and obvious contrast to Ready Player One.
Gone Home, chock full of references for certain, doesn’t stop at surface minutia and instead boldly continues to plumb the depths of subculture to ask very interesting questions about our relationship to art and broader society: Have you ever watched yourself appear as an actor in your own history? Have you ever watched yourself disappear from someone else’s history? What if you had lived a story, only to see it willfully tossed aside because it was inconvenient for someone else, how would you continue to act? How do you try to understand the stories of others when, lacking any semblance of omniscience, you can only arrange and rearrange through hints and clues after the fact? Indeed, the very idea of chronology presented in Gone Home is convoluted precisely to highlight this non-linear relationship we as humans have with the world. Though the player initially thinks it takes place the first time through the house, discovering events in the past, you learn at the very end that the diary voiceovers accompanying the search could only have come after the final scene, when the diary is discovered. So in fact the trip through the house is happening in the memory of the player’s character. Gone Home, instead of building a one-way canonical understanding of the world - a “winnable” world - instead works to humanize the messiness and unexpectedness of life, and to try to understand these tensions as both products of the constraints of a huge web of history and also as exciting generative energies that propel us out into the world and accumulate with us throughout our lives
That is precisely why I think that Gone Home is such a critically important piece of art. The way we each formulate our visions of our past artistic or subcultural loves directly affects our capacity to understand ourselves and others in the future. In order to craft creative new solutions for the ever more complicated situations of living in a globally connected world we need to make sure the stories we tell and experience about the past, about our hobbies and our lives, don’t just end with our high school experience. That they don’t just prioritize one point of view or one predefined ideal outcome. We need stories and games that remember all the messiness, hard work, community interactions, and infinitely varied passions that drove the birth and growth of all the various fandoms and art movements.
Otherwise, our stories about ourselves as fans, and our complex relationship between consumption and production, will be impoverished. We’ll be at the mercy of BuzzFeed listicle writers trolling for hits based on nostalgia, or under the heel of the language of the corporate report. How we take ownership of our definitions of success and our ability to understand and appreciate others’ definitions of success are limited by our capacity to comprehend and imagine the relationship of our individual subject-position, our personal story, and how it interacts with the innumerable stories that fill the world around us. Sometimes we can change things, sometimes we make mistakes, sometimes we can only be present and listen because choices have been made that have outcomes we can’t change.
One of my recent obsessions has been pondering the artists that didn’t make the grand history book (an interest that admittedly leads to a very specific reading of Gone Home, though innumerable awesome articles about all the other facets of the game have been written and archived at places like Critical Distance and elsewhere). All those legions of artists, a vast majority of artists in fact, that worked hard their whole lives but for one reason or another weren’t included in the abridged version of history that is commonly told, are my preoccupation. They kept working, making good art, developing their ideas, inspiring others, and interacting with the art world, growing its broader ecosystem, driving the swells and tide of art. They are unknown to us now, but were passionate and deeply engaged during their lifetimes.
No one in Gone Home is a famous artist, but everyone still has a passionate, but different, relationship with art and culture. Sam, a complex character rightfully covered extensively in other articles, is a college-bound writer going through the seminal moment of RiotGrrl punk in the mid 90s and discovering she is gay in an intolerant society; while her soon-to-be lover, Lonnie, is headed to the military experiencing the same subculture from a completely different angle. The mom is really good at her high level government job in forest management and loves fun classic rock like Pat Benatar, but is having doubts about her life. The dad is semi-failed writer dealing with his past traumas in the form of thriller novels and is a lover of classic jazz and blues vinyl, currently knocking out reviews of audio gear for a magazine to pay the bills. The player is in the shoes of Katie, someone in college off doing the grand tour of Europe, seeing all of the classic works of culture and art there. All of this is set in the hotbed of the Pacific Northwest where grunge and alternative rock was turning from a gritty underground into a cash cow for major media. The backdrop is Newt Gingrich’s America, a product of the 80’s culture wars fusing race and class to cynically create the religious-right as a solid conservative voting block, where he was proclaiming Christian family values in public while cheating on his wife with innumerable aides and secretaries in his offices.
Being 34 years old means that both the dad and Sam are about equidistant from my current age. I can see bits of myself in both, but simultaneously they are each so unlike me. Is it possible that I would sit in that virtual house at 55 writing reviews for a hi-fi magazine having worked so hard, but never having made it in writing? Was it anything but a complete sense of vertigo to watch Sam, to return to the mid 90s underground of zines and noise/punk rock that I was so steeped in myself (not to mention photography)? Letting my imagination wander, I wonder where Sam would be now. Four years older than me would make her 38. Did she become a famous writer? Does she ever think back to her zines? Does she have a publishing deal and is friends with people from the Slits and the X-Ray Specs? Or does she watch a pirated download of Downton Abbey after knocking out a couple paragraphs on the high school sports team for the local paper that barely pays the bills? Probably somewhere in between.
What the hell do we do with our past; both success and failures; the things we still hold dear and the things we can barely remember why we cared about; as artists, lovers, and lovers of art? So much of this difficulty, this trauma, this barren vision of art, as embodied by the rigid framework displayed in Ready Player One, is because first-world societies have become so neurotically obsessed with winner-take-all-success and money as the sole criteria for valuation that they have deployed a reductionist form of cultural-Libertarianism to arbitrate our loves and passions. This form of hyper-individualist artistic judgement demands that we can only canonize or ignore. But the relationships between art and life, between our stories and the stories of others, between the art that moves us and ourselves, are messy, interconnected, ever-changing, and nuanced. As art critic John Berger says, “We never look at just one thing we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.”
That’s where Gone Home, not a science fiction novel but still worth applying Jameson’s rule of thumb about art to, really shows that it has a much broader ability to portray the unknowns of human relationships, both socially and artistically, compared to Ready Player One. Gone Home asks us to watch as a group of closely knit people with wildly diverse values and interests ponder the really big questions about how we take agency of their own lives. Ready Player One is about finding someone else’s structure and studying it until you can quote it perfectly, and the world it portrays is barren pastiche, devoid of the possibility to imagine other outcomes or paradigms. Gone Home is loaded with moments of burden, moments where the weight of history breaks through the thin vernier of imposed normalcy and where moments of normalcy transcend history. To engage with decisions you can’t make, and to celebrate the outcome, alongside the pain, reconstituted as emotionally and intellectually fresh in art for you to ponder from a future perspective. In that way, Gone Home is both a profoundly deep story about identity but also about the ghost palace of memory that inhabits us. Indeed, the very core metaphors that both works frame for the way that art/subculture works tell us a great deal about their vision of human existence.
In Ready Player One, the central working metaphor is that of “The Bible” (of Haliday’s obsessions): a singular finished work of a master; handed to a worthy disciple as chosen through diligent study. In Gone Home, the house (or more specifically, the virtual-in-game haunted house) embodies the notion of the Memory Palace, a rhetorical tool of ancient philosophy in which a person imagines all of their memories as an architectural structure—a house continually being populated and rearranged with innumerable possessions, with new rooms and wings growing into being alongside the increase in experiences and knowledge.
Both Gone Home and Ready Player One are laden with inside information, allusions, and culturally specific cues. But knowing those cues produce drastically different outcomes in both works. In Gone Home, knowing more about that world of 90s underground, classic jazz, or classical art only adds to the work, and gives you a richer, more complex understanding of the characters. The closer you look at the tiny microcosm of the house in Gone Home, the more the whole shimmering field of possibility, past and present, in life blooms in all its diverse glory. Not only that, but it lights the fire of creation, lauding the long history of fans as DIY creators, which is carried on so brightly in communities like Twine games and indie comics.
Recognizing the references in Ready Player One might at best make you feel on the inside of the subculture, but at worst can even spoil some of the story. I happened to guess the first puzzle almost immediately (I used to be a pretty serious old-school Dungeons & Dragons module collector), so for an instant I felt smart, but then felt cheated, because it did nothing new with the information, and now I had to slog through another 75 pages of the character explicating his solution to a question I already knew. In Ready Player One, the infinite virtual exists, but it is still a one-way system led from the top. Even the most wealthy, global competitor doesn’t dare duplicate it (which seems insanely unrealistic unless Haliday is the ultimate patent troll); the main hero strives to become the master of it. Looking for deeper, more personal meaning in Ready Player One just makes you one more Simpsons Comic Book Guy, hoping to become the next Invincible-Pac-Man-Record-Setting-Level-99-Gandalf. What would a zine that Sam and Lonnie make have to say about that world?
In the end of Ready Player One, the main character, Wade, stands in a full size recreation of Rivendell from Lord of the Rings in the Pacific Northwest as an instant-teenage-billionaire-celebrity, having been given what is presented as the ultimate power: the ability to delete the virtual world (another indicator of the all-or-nothing vision of culture in the novel) and a lecture of platitudes about how all that matters is IRL by the avatar-ghost of Haliday. The novel has Wade win by besting the hive-mind-non-fan-evil-corportation by knowing Rush note-for-note and playing a perfect game of Pac Man. He wins the heart of the most famous pop-culture blogger in the world through his determination and charm in the form witty references. Then he wins the final test of his worthiness by reenacting in its entirety a virtual version of Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail line-for-line with bonus points for using the correct accents. But as writer Maria Popva says, “meaningful is the opposite of trivial.” In that spirit, the loving investigation of punk zine culture in Gone Home is always portrayed in the context of anti-trivia moments such as when Sam explicitly spells out to the player-character, “You’ll never have to have this conversation with Mom and Dad.”
As the story in the game reaches its climax, instead of dwelling on nostalgia it presents all of the characters finally learning to make increasingly intense, often painfully conflicted choices for themselves. And all of those choices are rooted in the gravity of the past, have unpredictable results in the future, and are enacted in the field of messy human emotions in the present. Throughout the game art is never simply reduced to cause and effect, but always remains a potent throughway weaving in and out of the grander dialog between stories. Not merely reveling in the intensity of the liminal period at the last days of high school, the youthful characters and the adults all have a rich relationship between art and life. All the characters are in some configuration both fans and creators, and that relationship is always presented a series of related compromises and risks, not gameified for us as a player to automatically “win” if we know the right references.
Rather than presenting fandom as a winner-take-all trivia contest, Gone Home’s core depiction of fans on the inside of a subculture is that they use, modify, and craft their passions, and are changed by that process. Success is defined as agency, and DIY fandom is one of the many forms of agency that become a way to understand ever-deeper the ways our art, our social circumstance, our families connect our lives.
This is why I wanted to cry at the end of Gone Home: It was a reminder of just how potent the act of paying attention can be. It was a reminder to try to let everyone around speak (or sit in silence since everyone has moments where they are incapable of speaking). It was a reminder both of the complexity and the joy of life. Ready Player One’s portrayal of fans and subculture felt like the inscribing of a tomb. Not the fun RPG adventure-module-kind-of-tomb where, years later, friends still laugh about their failed attempt to fight a demi-lich. Rather, the kind that sits there and does nothing, except maybe bear witness to a couple teens cutting through the cemetery on the way home from school, off to make a zine that doesn’t care about what you think.
Gone Home reminds you that the most vibrant portrayals of passion, the kind we need to retain our ability to make choices, are not rooted in winning or accumulating trivia. Even fans exist in society, steeped in the inevitable melange of history, pain, and joy, and what a wondrous thing that is, to be so involved with the mystery of what future creation might bring.
"Bridging Worlds" is a series by LA-based artist and VGT guest author Eron Rauch about the blurred line between games and art. These articles are intended as conversation starters about the burgeoning intersection between the fine art world, academic studies of games, virtual photography, and video game creation. All images shown are Eron's works.