Friday, September 27, 2013

Fantastical Idealism (or: To The Moon as Psychological Horror)

Fantastical materialism treats fantastical tropes as technologies themselves. That is, it takes the stuff of genre, those metonymic objects capable of signifying a whole genre simply by their presence[,] and upholds the dialectical tension between the signification and the stuff.
There are, to my mind, a number of ways that a text can move within itself. With regards to To The Moon, a 2011 independent adventure game made in RPG maker, the one I’m most interested in is the idea of “collapse.”

The major collapse in the game, the one that pushed it out of the “interesting and cute, if not all that great” territory and into the “fuck this game” territory, for me, is the one that’s antonymic to the “uphold” in the above quote; when the game decides that the “dialectical tension between the signification and the stuff” needs closure.

To make this claim with less abstraction: in To The Moon, there is a visual/narrative motif of a lighthouse. A lighthouse is the game’s emblem; it features heavily as a slight, ongoing mystery, mostly by being simultaneously a visual and topological anchor. It’s where you find an origami rabbit whose significance hovers in the background throughout the game; it’s what the initially-mysterious name “Anya” refers to; most importantly, it looks good, and seems to touch obliquely on something without necessarily signifying anything.

And then it does.

That’s where the collapse happens. When the fecund image of the lighthouse, seeming to open possibilities, is suddenly given a singular, concrete narrative impetus. When the game decides that that its story is not just holistic, but utterly indifferent to anything except its characters.

I think this sort of move, which might be most visibly tied to those subgenres called “Psychological X” (“Horror” or "Thriller" being the most obvious values for X), stands directly against what I earlier tried to trace out as Fantastical Materialism.

Fantastical Materialism is, if anything, necessarily a mode of reading, and not of writing. It’s an attempt to draw out a certain mode of valuing texts based on how they treat their material, against how we are generally lead to believe they ought to be valued; in this sense, it is a sort of counter-ethics of reception. We are - or at least I was - taught that the value of a text is found in certain writerly conventions, ways of constructing meaning or experience reliant on the weaving-together of certain abstractions through other, privileged abstractions, all of which together produce either meaning or experience. There’s a reason that “text” works across forms. The model remains textile.

Which is all well and good for aspiring authors, I suppose. But I am finding more and more that it glosses over most of what I am interested in as a reader.

So; provisionally, I’m going to talk about the aforementioned tendency exemplified by “Psychological X” stuff as a sort of Fantastical Idealism. Against (and preceding) Fantastical Materialism, Fantastical Idealism would be the tendency to, in the last instance, insist that the “stuff” of a text is determined exclusively by those privileged abstractions mentioned earlier. To The Moon and most other Psychological Horror/Thriller media use character as their focus, but it’s not the only one; in, for example, the Fairy Tale, the idealism is very straightforwardly in the moral, which is to say that the focus is the meaning. In the broad “experimental” genre that encompasses many forms, there are many, many examples of this same focus being on form as an abstract ideal. Generally, I think, whenever an experiment with form has as its goal an unveiling (or even breaking) of what is taken to be The Truth of the Form In Question, a sort of Fantastical Idealism is taking place. Criticism gets in on this too, and very often.

In a Fantastical Idealist text like To The Moon, then, the persistence of a symbol is not a testament to its strength, but to a justification, via (biographical) abstraction, of that symbol within the text. What this does, in short, is to force the reader away from reading the oikos (a house, as well as the root for both economy and ecology) and towards focusing exclusively on how it constructs interiority. The reader is forced to invest not in the world of the text, but exclusively on the characters. And, for whatever perverse reason, instead of seeing this as a reductive move that significantly cheapens both world and character, it is instead heralded as a triumph of characterization.

Backing up slightly; To The Moon is a science fictional game, in which the player takes control of Dr. Neil Watts and Dr. Eva Rosalene, whose work for the Sigmund Corporation involves some sort of machine that allows them embodied access to a patient's memories; with this, they enter the minds of terminally ill (and sufficiently wealthy) patients to rewrite the memories such that, in the instant before they die, these patients can remember having lived out their life long dream. The player is made to understand that this procedure has a cost; the cognitive dissonance of supplanting a whole lifetime's worth of memories is huge, which is why it is only performed on patients in the last moments of their life.

The patient in To The Moon, Johnny, has as his last wish to go to the moon. The dramatic tension in the game initially extends from the fact that, presumably unlike other patients, he has no idea why he wants this. So the doctors must first determine the why, before they can, in his memory at least, alter Johnny's life path in such a way as to accommodate the how.

The gameplay of To The Moon takes place entirely, excepting the introduction and a brief interlude, within Johnny's head. The doctors travel backwards through Johnny's memory by way of certain consistent objects; a stuffed platypus, for instance, links shows up consistently throughout Johnny's memories. So the doctors use it as a gate through which to step into further and further pasts, to determine where Johnny's dreams of lunar adventure arose. To do this the player makes them wander around and collect a set number of orbs to "unlock" the gate, at which point the player must solve a simple block-flipping puzzle before stepping through.

There are two things in my synopsis that are relevant to the collapse into Fantastical Idealism that ruins To The Moon; the first is that the game's narrative frame & hook holistically justify it; the second is that the game's stuff (like the stuffed platypus) and the mechanics associated with it point tantalizingly away from it.

The narrative frame is the reason that the Psychological Horror genre makes sense as a comparison, even though To The Moon is most comfortably situated in SF and either the adventure or RPG genres; the main thread that differentiates psychological horror from other kinds of horror is exactly that it structurally accounts for the collapse into character biography/narrative. That is, it turns holistic textual readings into a kind of explicit solipsism, positioning (usually retroactively, often as a "twist" ending) the textual material as a specific kind of diegetic projection.

To The Moon, to its credit, immediately sets itself up as a text that privileges this solipsistic construction; it is literally a story about being inside someone's head. I am not arguing that the collapse is unjustified diegetically or that it doesn't work. The hugely positive way in which the game was received is testament to that. Neither am I particularly interested in illustrating the ways in which the game is actually not "well written;" while there is definitely a space and a use for valuing writing in that way, I tend to think that space is primarily in writing workshops. As I've said, Fantastical Materialism is about reading, not writing; it is about contending with things as they are, not formalizing new ways in which to create things. To The Moon is, under perfectly valid rubrics, a well written story (even if the sentence-level writing is often abysmal), even, for the form, perhaps greatly written; what its particular collapse does, however, is to shear off all of the "stuff" of the text, which we might also call its possibilities (or which a different value system might call its fat), in favor of that idealist abstraction of character.

To add to the already overwhelming pool of genres I'm claiming To The Moon draws from; where it goes wrong, I think, is in assuming that all generic objects operate like they do within the Mystery genre; that is, it fails to recognize that the repetition of objects in genre is an end in itself, and not a means. Generally (very generally) speaking, the use of repetition in a Mystery, where the reader's pleasure hinges on apophenia, is sufficient cause for speculation and suspicion. Whether this suspicion plays out as the reader expects or at all is one of the possible joys of engaging with the genre; but regardless of how it ends up, the repetition itself is necessarily charged in a way that it isn't in other contexts. Repetition in SF, for instance, isn't structurally apophenic; it tends more towards consolidation (still very generally), in which things which are initially unknown (made up) are integrated into the texture, or world, of the text.

To The Moon initially seems to share this sfnal approach, or at least it did to me; despite the way the text is set up for solipsism, the generic trappings of SF seem initially to override it. And the way the objects are treated seems to support this, from the beach ball rock onward; there is a certain irreverence that points to the idea that while the lighthouse and the platypus and the origami rabbit and the jar of pickled olives can be treated as clues to unlocking the character's interiority, this isn't categorically what they are. There is a strong textual (and even stronger paratextual) suggestion that, as much as the player is in the head of the individual, the oikos is being pointed to.

Which is all just to say: there is a dramatic arc here, for sure, but the interesting stuff is the worldbuilding! Until you find out: whoops, nope. There's actually no worldbuilding going on here whatsoever. Just the melodrama imposed onto space.

More, perhaps, than anything else, this collapse strands those elements of the game which might be thought of as its overt mechanics. The collection of memory orbs and the completion of puzzles works exclusively because they "uphold the dialectical tension between the signification and the stuff;" as actions themselves they are fucking boring. The puzzles suck and the collection of memory orbs is some terrible hybrid of pixel hunting and walking around looking for hidden items in every house in an RPG village. Even as sfnal objects they are weak; if this is really the process that needs to be undertaken every time someone wants their memory rebooted just before they die, there are presumably a hell of a lot of failures. Which isn't even going into the nonsense science of the whole scenario in the first place. The sense it makes is totally conditional on the understanding that these are productively liminal objects - not quite real and not quite signifiers - which is why they can be manipulated within these mechanical abstractions.

But then, of course, it turns out that they aren’t actually liminal at all. They were pure signifier, object of pure interiority. And even though, as the game progresses, these overt mechanics sort of slowly fade away until the player is basically skipping them altogether, the retroactive sense of annoyance is fully justified. Narratively, the mechanical aspect still (sort of) functions; it’s quasi-magical SF, and the unlocking is a sort of scientistic veneer, a metaphorization of the neuronal coding of memory. But what little there is interesting about those acts has everything to do with how they suggest that metaphorization. It’s in the way that they seem to open outwards, to allow themselves to be read, to create space for interpretation. But instead the narrative progresses, the author checks off a box for each, proclaims the correct reading, and they sit there, husks.