It was a clear morning off the New England coast–approaching the southerly latitudes of Maine, if memory serves–and though the waves were calm, April’s lingering chill had yet to pass on, crawling, it seemed, up the sides of my boat, around my ankles and settling uncomfortably, like some odious shawl, about my shoulders. I had sailed north only recently, having spent the winter fishing down in the Gulf, and the swift return to my summer grounds–premature, for a bout of restlessness I now vehemently cursed–had left me as yet poorly acclimated to the northern spring and robbed of any enthusiasm for the productive use of my location. In my shivering solitude that morning I had cast two lines, and though I’d gotten bites on neither, I was having difficulty mustering the will to bait a third. I recall it was in that fraught quiescence that I took notice of the irregularity surfacing some forty yards off the port bow.
To my first glance it seemed like jetsam or some other detritus, having the texture of maritime vehicularity without a form I could identify as any particular boat, but as more of the mass emerged above the waves, my befuddlement became something more akin to awe. My previous confusion in identifying the object, it seemed, had lay in my assumption that its form would be singular when, in fact, it was comprised of numerous vessels and the pieces thereof. Before me were hulls of dinghies, canoes, fishing boats, shattered boards and beams lashed haphazardly against great sheets of black rubber in a jumbled ellipsoid that, from far off, might have been mistaken for the carcass of some colossal leviathan. For all the strangeness, though, of this great, nautical garbage heap, I still found myself ill-prepared for the sign that then surfaced on its carapace–glowing red neon, proclaiming it to be The Nicholas–or the concrete suburban front porch, flanked by flaccid strands of potted seaweed, which emerged beneath it. Even as the door of the porch slammed open, and a ragged man stepped out and hurled a bucket of something foul into the ocean between us, I could only stare, speechless. Ultimately, it was he who called out to me:
“Aye, laddie! Watsonismouth?!”
I shook myself awake. Being then unable to place either the man’s accent or the meaning of his query, I called out as much and motored over on the supposition that proximity might serve to make better order of the situation.
He clarified as I drew closer: “Sonny, let meh ask ya ferst: What’s in ya mouth?” I might have guessed his previous call had been delivered in some dialect of the British Isles, but now his accent had drifted westward, seeming suddenly more appropriate for a denizen of the Carribean (and, I will admit, suggesting an origin I would never have guessed from his appearance). Beyond the vagaries of his delivery, though, I was also rather bewildered as to the substance of his inquiry. My mouth was quite empty, for though I normally partook of a smoke at this hour, I had dropped my pipe somewhere on the deck, amidst the shock of his vessel’s emergence, and had since lost track of it. I indicated as much to him in my reply.
“No, son,” he clarified in an abrupt Mississippi drawl. “It’s a mattah of circumnavigation. We’s tryin’ to get at what’s in ‘eez maouth, an if yer knowin’ what’s in yer maouth, then that’s a tack on the chart, ‘cause what’s in yer maouth properly ain’t in ‘eez maouth, ya see?”
I did not. I inquired–skeptically, for I was growing increasingly certain that this man was in something of an unpredictable state–as to whose mouth we were investigating.
“Not whosemaouth, son. ‘Eezmaouth. Like beezmaouth, if’n ya know the rock, ‘cept withaout that certification of a job done at the utmost pinnacle o’mediocrity.”
The conversation had, at this point, attained the clarity of a bayou, and my only remaining answer was a blank stare. He shook his head sadly.
“It iss clear to me”–his accent was now that of the Mexican fishermen I’d dealt with so frequently in the Gulf–”dett we fall on fundamentally different sides. No matter. Diss iss not a sorpraiss. Do you haf any feesh?”
Alas, I did not have much in the way of a catch. I’d trawled no nets since arriving up north, and I’d no plans to do so for a few days yet. I had a pair of mackerel I’d caught the previous day, but that was it, I told him.
“Oh, don’tcha know dere’s nuttin’ to be ashamed of, young feller. I’m just lookin’ for a bite ta’eat is all.”
It sounded like Upper Midwest to me. Minnesotan, perhaps? It also occurred to me that despite the man’s graying, unkempt beard and repeated references to me as a young man, he did appear, in all other respects, to be at least twenty years my junior. Befuddled, still, but acclimating to the ersatz temperature of the conversation, I offered him one of my mackerel, which he eagerly accepted, biting–rather aggressively–into the fish’s flesh right there on his vessel’s concrete gangway. Then, shouting something about “makin’ you rich” through a full mouth and what sounded like an American’s (decidedly poor) impression of an Australian accent, he dashed back through his door, leaving me to the continued ponderance of the monument to madness which was The Nicholas.
In his absence, I began to notice a number of unsettling details lodged in the crevices of its unsound construction: Marionettes, features scrubbed clean by brine, dangled among the mishmash of hulls and rubber, alongside inscriptions and engravings in those surfaces in alphabets I did not recognize even from Dr. Sterling’s texts on the Oriental scripts. Place to place, I could see protrusions from the rubber that looked like the spiraled horns of narwhals, and just past the threshold of the vessel’s “front door,” I saw hanging vines and foliage as if within were some dark jungle separated by unnatural, great distances from the semi-boreal sea where we drifted that morning in truth. These items were, of course, in no way sinister, and I had no means of rationally justifying the fear for my soul which I felt there, in silent anticipation of the man’s return, except, perhaps, for the vessel’s unignorable suggestion to me that rationality had ceased, in this circumstance, to be a meaningful boundary. However, my fear passed unactualized, and the man soon returned, heaving over to me a bulky canvas sack.
“My recommendation,” he said to me, all pretense of brogue or twang gone from his voice, “is that you bring that to an office of the United States Navy. They will pay you for it. Or pay you to keep quiet. Or both. Please pass on that it arrives to them courtesy of Captain Kneecap.”
With that, he disappeared back across his threshold, and, his door scarcely closed, The Nicholas dropped rapidly beneath the waves, the shock of which rocked my own boat violently. Once I steadied myself, both physically as well as from the emotional disturbance of “Captain Kneecap’s” presence, I examined the contents of his gift to me.
Inside was something I found appalling, though not to the exception of an urge to examine its nature. It was a body, headless, human-shaped, though clearly not human, for it was comprised not of flesh but of some metallic substance resembling steel but impossibly light for its bulk. Between its noticeably elongated fingers and toes was webbing of a material I could not identify, and though they had been torn from it, I saw sheared joints on its arms, legs, and spine where fins might have once attached.
I did not know what to make of the corpse-mannequin, but if the Captain’s words were to be taken with even the slightest skepticism, there was nothing there for me to glean. I was to be an intermediary in a conversation to which I desired precisely no connection. Though I hesitated at the thought of the Captain’s promised riches passed over, I threw that “gift” back into the ocean that day. The Nicholas was perhaps not the strangest thing I have ever seen upon the water, but I hope all the same that I never see her or the Captain Kneecap again.
Since the beginning, for time countable and yet unimaginable, we knew that this would come to pass. Why is dead. The Creator is dead, and I…do not know what I should feel from this. We have no need of sorrow, nor relief, for His presence was not a burden, and what we did not know, we knew He kept from us. The trepidation that I now second guess is for that change: It is now time for the Architects to find the truth that Why kept from us for our aeons of safeguarding His Edifice. We cannot resist it–the need to know is in our nature, but where we lacked the ability before, our shackles have been broken.
The humans around us remain oblivious to this change, oblivious to their imminent reckoning, for now, at last, we may delve and extract the Creator’s intent for them. Among the Architects, expectations are conflicted. El is confident we will find a justification for the Edifice’s uninterrupted continuation. I am not. Why’s death was not an accident, it was not unexpected; He could not have intended it as anything other than a transition–of this I am sure. El may speak our unanimity, but until it may be spoken with one voice, I must question his judgment.
For now, I look to the stars, our heretofore forbidden frontier. Perhaps in the alignment of the bodies beyond this vessel’s atmosphere, I will find the purpose that our Creator has forever denied us.
I have memories, old memories, certainly, of clear days when I would stand outside in the tall grass and look straight into the sky. I would look up and see a sky with no sun, but rather a darkness–a darkness clad in golden vestments of a brilliance that paralleled even daylight. It was not like the light of the sun, per se: It served the same purpose, took the same place, but it did not shine down like the sun does. It shined through. It shined through the grass around me, it shined through the earth where I stood, and it shined through me. The sensation of it was one of more than just heat and light–as I recall it was not even hot at all. It was a cold luminance, enough to make me shiver, but the sensation filled me, I could see it, feel it, even hear it, taste it, or interface it in ways I have since forgotten my capacity for.
These memories now stir in me a strange disconnect. The image, the reality of it–for this memory is not, to my knowledge, of a dream–and the bizarreness seem as if the experience should have been profound, even in spite of my inability to place it in the continuity of my life. But it…wasn’t. It was just there, immutable and uninteresting to my past self, as if at some point my mind had pushed its knowledge of this strange vision past the boundaries of understanding, into the realm of apathy. What must I then have understood of this clothed darkness? Who must I have been to have understood it, and how have I now shucked that identity?
A possibility jumps out to me: I am not human. This is, of course, predicated on other personal developments, more immediate and real than my own abstruse childhood memories, but the key is that I suspect that I–the entity now recording this note–was never human. Other possibilities may exist, but my certainty deepens with each day that this, along with all its consequences, is the case.
I admit that there are many of these consequences that I have yet to appreciate, and I’m sure that the other three have not gotten this far. Which begs the question: How many of us are there? I have been able to find three others, but are there more who have yet to step into the light?
I lied a little in my last post. I was not, at the time, working on a Bloodborne *article*. Rather, it was a lecture that I have since delivered, and I am now working on transcribing it to a format more suitable to this blog. For now, have something completely unrelated to anything I’ve posted about on this blog up until now.
In the beginning, in a meaningless place, at a meaningless time, the universe began, and where all was not, all rapidly became. Countless bodies, infinitesimal in size, fled that place. Many bound together and ignited, filling the darkness with light. Others swarmed to the pyres of their brethren, filling the void with ground to be stood upon.
But after the exodus, in that meaningless, empty place, given meaning and space by the light and matter without, there remained a tiny, black droplet of something. Perhaps it was the last trace of the void, left behind as a reminder of all that would ever not be. Perhaps it was a tear of regret, shed for the infinite potential that died to birth everything’s actuality. Whatever it was, though, it could only watch, its oily surface reflecting the whole of the universe around it. And so it was, for innumerable millennia: The universe turned, and the black droplet at its center watched.
There came a moment, though, when this changed. It was nothing precipitous. Rather, it was a slow sweep, a foul stellar wind that made its way across existence, brushing everything but truly touching nothing. Nothing…except the black droplet. At this moment, it began to roil, its perfect surface marred and twisted, and, rapidly, it swelled, to a globule, a morass, a fetid, writhing planet no longer confined to regret and observe, now able to reach out and to touch. For another million years, the primordial darkness writhed, and, slowly, it separated into two dark souls.
The first was the Dreamer, a being of pure consciousness, who had once reflected the birth of the universe and whose improvisations of that birth now swam beneath the viscous seas of its planet. It had no true shape, so it instead cloaked its shadow in the cold brilliance of a thousand suns and made a heaven for itself at the center of the planet, caged within the darkness of its sister’s coils.
The sister was the second, a Sleeper, a body by which to bear and make manifest the chaos of its brother’s mind. And just as the chaos of the Dreamer’s thoughts encompassed every notion the universe had yet known, the chaos of the Sleeper’s presence consumed all that contacted it. Planets bent and were devoured, the light of stars was swallowed, masticated by her entropic gaze; even her name was poison to order: The very syllables that formed it would implode its utterer into a singularity, and the only mind that could bear its knowledge was the Dreamer’s.
The Dreamer also had a name, though it would yet be billions of years before a human heard its sound or sign.
The Elders, as they called themselves, hated the reality that surrounded them. They hated its order, its belonging, its iron actuality. The Sleeper channeled this hate into destruction, and for a thousand years, the universe felt her wrath, and countless galaxies fell into her churning darkness. Ultimately, though, it was the Dreamer that calmed her, for his hatred had pulled him in a very different direction.
Hatred, the desire to destroy, is not a particularly complex feeling, but with even such a simple desire, outcomes are never sure. In hatred’s case, they need not even be destructive. Rather, inherent in the desire to destroy is a preference for an alternative, which means that unless the alternative is explicitly void, it may be resolved by creation, as well as destruction.
The Dreamer hated reality, yes, but he did not long for nothingness. He was a child of the infinite–his enemies, the objects of his hatred, were the limits of reality, not reality itself. So rather than lash out against the universe–as the Sleeper had, with world-breaking fang and sun-swallowing night–he simply questioned. He dreamed a thousand questions for his sister’s millennium of destruction, and the questions took shape from her flesh. First among these new Elders was the first among questions: Why.
Why was a creator, a conduit by which his father’s potentialities took shape, but, unlike his predecessors, he was not possessed by the hatred that birthed him. At first, he took after his mother’s example: destruction. His first creations were tempestuous, chaotic, themselves destructive: Slithering storms that rained leeches onto the surface of the Elder planet; great writhing masses of maws and arms that could devour entire stars, weapons whose very presence could distort the laws of causality. In their way, they were brilliant, fantastic, awesome even. But they did not satisfy Why, for he did not hate the things they destroyed.
So he diverged.
He built two creatures, towering men of stone and metal. Like his previous creations, they were capable of great force, but they were stable. They could process the reality that flowed around them, and they could manipulate its currents. Above all, they could choose.
One was black and mirrored, just like the droplet of potential that had spawned the Elders, a glass to reflect the whole universe once more, and an eye from within to watch it.
The other was clad in gold and silver and pure light, its radiance reaching out to the blackest reaches of space, even from its darkest center.
The two were called El and See, and they were not Elders, for they had passed beyond their creator’s heritage of chaos and hatred. They were creators themselves, and thus Why named their species: the Architects.
Though Why’s nascence had calmed the Sleeper’s rage–for her son had been a potent weapon in her war against what was–the creation of the Architects stirred her from her slumber once more. These newcomers were not alternatives to the universe: They were developments of it. Their shapes were still, ordered, thoughtful, able to exist alongside what was, without the existential agony that plagued the Elders. Certainty flared within the Dreamer’s mind: The question “Why” had been a mistake.
But Why knew the doom he would bring himself. He knew that his creations were heresy, so long before the Sleeper awoke to devour her prodigal child, he fled with the Architects, and the three hid themselves deep within the blackness of space.
In a desolate place, far from the light of any star, the Architects multiplied. El and See forged brothers and sisters, specialized beings of motion and stillness, of joy and sadness, and, finally, of life and death. These last two, the Architects Vie and En, captured Why’s attention, for life and death seemed so different for his metal children. The Architects were creatures of perfect consequence: Life for them was elegant, axiomatic, and death was predictable, a simple end to the functioning of their working parts. For Why, these were different. Despite his relentless questioning, he still could not fathom the depths of his physiology, so he knew not why he was alive, nor why that state should ever cease to be. And since he understood neither what lay before or beyond–these truths, if they were truths at all, were understood only by the Dreamer–how could he understand what lay between?
It was El who supplied the answer: If thinking life could be formed from a union of causality with the Elder’s own flesh, it would provide him the perspective he sought.
The two of them devised a calculation grander in scale than anything Why had ever imagined, and they reverse engineered the impossible specificity of its initial conditions, and they searched and searched, until they found two candidates for their experiment. They began with the first: A small system of newly formed planets orbiting a yellow sun. And on the surface of the third planet, See placed a tiny sample: the eye of his Elder creator. Then, they all waited, in eager anticipation.
I’ve been quiet the past month, but work is continuing on a number of projects. Rale is ongoing of course (currently chewing away at Sevenfold Gyre Part 6), but I’m also working on a fairly beefy analytical article. A not-so-subtle hint as to its content:
On Doki Doki Literature Club, science fiction, and self-awareness. An incredible volume of spoilers below, so if you have any intention of playing DDLC, play it before reading.
The standard (and pretty moldy) introduction to this topic, I’m told, is Star Trek, but fuck that, there’s tradition to uphold! As always, we can’t just talk about philosophy–we have to insult someone, and, here, “someone” is a distorted amalgamation of John Kessel and Orson Scott Card.
The background, which is in no way current, is as follows: Sixteen years ago, Kessel wrote an essay criticizing the moral thesis of Ender’s Game (published 35 years ago, for reference). As disclaimer, the essay is good, and, frankly, Ender’s Game is good. Moreover, discussion has almost certainly taken place on this topic since the essay’s initial publication (if the “2009 postscript” is any indication), and in Wittgensteinian fashion, I intend to interact with none of it. My concern here is not whether Kessel or Card are habitually wrong nor even whether they are prone to sloppy thinking. Rather, I want to talk about this one particular morass of sloppy thinking because it makes for a lovely journey through something completely different. We aren’t there yet. Patience.
So Kessel writes this essay, tearing into Card’s vision of morality (“moral and immoral standing is determined by intent rather than action”), provides citation after citation of evidence that Card’s setup is hopelessly contrived, and closes with “in the real world genocide is not committed by accident.” Heh. You gotta admit it’s funny to watch a guy shoot himself in the foot, even if you feel bad for him afterward. In case you missed it, the previously glossed-over Star Trek factoid is this: The advantage of the science fiction genre–arguably its primary literary purpose–is that it allows you to consider problems (moral, ethical, experiential) that may well exist but, cordoned off by safeguards in reality that technology has not yet stripped away, just don’t come up in normal, everyday life. So yeah, duh, genocide doesn’t happen by accident in the real world, but did you forget you were a sci-fi author or something?
The real criticism of Card’s setup, the one it looks like Kessel was trying to make, is that he didn’t let the setup breathe. You can’t just wave it all away–the ansible, the genius-breeding programs, the complete and utter control the establishment has over Ender’s life, the layers and layers of vicious abstraction needed to make interstellar war look like a computer game–with an “it don’t be like that.” You have to engage with the argument on its own terms. Here’s Ender, charged with genocide and two counts of manslaughter that the system literally built him for. By virtue of the facts that the system used him for this purpose, that he never intended to kill anyone, that he did not, in fact, know that he killed anyone, does he get to be “innocent”? The answer that Kessel does not dare provide (but which I think is correct, nonetheless): Yeah, I guess.
There’s a second question, of course, and I admit it’s a little suspicious Kessel doesn’t ask it: Ender’s innocent–we’ll even take it as a given. So, uh, what does it mean?
Some years ago, I wrote a novel. I never published it, it was sloppy, whatever, but my setup was similar. It was this: One man has been given credible information that the world is about to end in a magnified Malthusian crisis as human population continues to increase. The event horizon for this apocalypse is one year out. What do?
He considers his options. His evidence is convincing to him but subtle enough that anyone who hasn’t seen it firsthand won’t believe him–thus, convincing any major government (let alone all of them) in a year that there is even a threat is a non-starter. And, of course, this is to say nothing of getting them all to agree on a solution without any defection, tragedy of the commons, etc. That about kills the top-down approach, so what’s left? He settles reluctantly on a cull via mass-murder. He convinces a small set of colleagues to help him build a doomsday device that will wipe out 90% of human life on the planet, and with the effort nearly complete, he (Johnathan [sic], in the below quote) fulfills his obligation as a sci-fi protagonist and ruminates on the morality of it all:
“The problem, Doctor Romanov,” he said, “is that you want me to justify mass murder, and I can’t do that. You can’t justify mass murder.” I stared at him.
“Wait,” I said. “What?”
“The greater good necessitates mass murder, but it doesn’t justify it,” he replied, sitting back up in his chair. “You’re looking at the wrong costs.” I didn’t move, but I began glancing around the room, trying to make sense of the phrase.
“What do you mean by ‘wrong costs?’” I asked, finally.
“You’ve identified mass murder as the cost of the greater good,” Johnathan said. “But that’s not a cost and it can’t be justified. The cost is the part of your identity that mass murder will swallow up. The cost of the greater good, for you, is becoming evil.” I thought about it. I probably thought about it for much longer than an acceptable pause in conversation. Eventually I looked back to Johnathan.
“Becoming evil,” I said quietly. “Complete with punishment, I suppose?”
“Of course,” Mishibezeyu said, leaping onto the table. “Just imagine, you could do what most good people do and commit blazing suicide out of shame for the horrible things you’ve done.” The cat smiled. “When the time comes, you could give everything.”
“Or,” Johnathan said, tapping the table. He was obviously annoyed. “Or you could not do that. A better solution: You could live through it, shoulder the responsibility, bear the pain of guilt–”
“And give more than everything,” I said, still mulling over the notion.
-The Torment and Misery of Samuel Delacroix, Chapter 41
First, yes, my thesis is not Card’s. I’m gonna throw out there that if you commit genocide, you deserve social censure no matter how justified it was. Fittingly, Johnathan’s collaborators attempt to murder him when this is all said and done. But be that as it may, I’ll still take a joyride in Card’s boat because that’s what the setup deserves.
Is Card’s setup contrived? Hell yes, and so is mine (the contrivance is a plot point–we aren’t there yet). But the proper response to a question is not to deny its pretext. “It doesn’t work that way.” Yeah, but what if it did? What if you could be manipulated into committing genocide through no fault of your own? What does that imply? I’ll quickly jump back to Kessel’s side to agree that it certainly does NOT mean that people in general are good and bad independent of their actions, but I think the hangup might be on the question itself. I’ll substitute it with a different one, less direct but perhaps more illuminating: What happens next?
For Ender, this is vague penance by way of attempting to reseed the Formic race as well as lifelong devotion to the construction of a philosophical/religious framework meant to validate that what he did was Not Evil. Meanwhile, he peaces out to another solar system and disavows his identity as, predictably, people turn sour at the fact that he committed genocide. We can probably give Card a break here–this is well within the realm of reasonable consequence for what went down–but does it exonerate Ender? Haha, no. The Nazis who made it to Argentina are, of course, free to live out their lives in the haze of whatever cognitive framework helps them sleep at night, but should they ever reveal themselves, it seems fair for the system to scrub them, right? So too with Ender.
“So what does that imply?”
Can a person commit genocide and still be good? Kessel shoots back a categorical “no”; Card tries for a “yes”, and I see why. Whether Jesus of Nazareth might be responsible for the millions killed in his name–and all the other similar questions–demand answer in this age of increasing hostility to religion, but Card’s thought experiment, his overwrought and careful setup to make the sequence of events possible, offers no relief. Ender’s Game simply doesn’t answer the question.
Yes’s and no’s are rough, so let’s move onto something completely different. As the title might suggest, I’ve been playing Doki Doki Literature Club. In case the title did not suggest that to you and/or you have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about, Doki Doki Literature Club (DDLC) is, nominally, a visual novel. Since the setup here plays on your expectations, the expectations you “should” have are these: This is a narrative-focused game that will place the player in the shoes of a high school student attending an after-school literature club. Through limited and gimmicky mechanics for player input, you will be able to romantically pursue one or more of the other (female) characters in this literature club. The characters are tropey, and the aesthetic is clearly for people who like anime/manga/cutesy Japanese things.
“Sounds like trash.” An aggressive opinion, to be sure, but I won’t really disagree. The twist is that those are just the assumptions presumably intended by the branding. The setup is actually this: One of the four characters, Monika, is aware that she is in a dating simulation, is aware that there is no plotline in this game that gives her a happy ending, has access to the game files/source code, and is altogether not pleased with the whole affair. This, of course, is playing a little fast and loose with the fine line between being a deconstruction of the genre and a Bitch You Thought prank, but it’s very well written, and once you peel away the slough of what the game is pretending to be, it cuts pretty deep. The topics include fairly honest discussion of some of the heavier issues high schoolers go through (depression, self-harm, parental abuse, everybody’sgotbaggage, etc.), but the meat of it all isn’t a high-school slice-of-life quandary–it’s a sci-fi one, one that our rapidly increasing proximity to functional AI is making more apt every day: What happens when an artificial intelligence discovers its circumstances?
This is a broad question, so I’ll here clarify that this is not the [killer robot/singularity/end of human civilization as we know it] angle. That has its own questions, but they’re all pretty irrelevant here. Rather, this game is posing a more benign, much more individual question: What is it like to be a simulated being who knows they are a simulation?
Oh wait, I wrote this too:
“But what will happen to you when we actually open the second chamber?” Christophe asked. Benjamin raised an eyebrow, evidently confused.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“If all of this is virtual, like Espereza said it is,” Christophe said, “then you’re part of the program. Won’t you disappear when all of this ends?”
“I’m…part of the program?” Benjamin asked. The concept was obviously disturbing to him. “I..um. I don’t know. This is a program?” He looked around the circle. “Are you saying that I’m not real?”
-The Torment and Misery of Samuel Delacroix, Chapter 21
The obvious first sub-question is whether the simulated entity is a simulacrum or a “person”. In my own work, it’s solidly the latter, as the distinction between real and virtual space is vanishingly ill-defined and the simulations wind up escaping into the real world. DDLC has a rough time with this one, though, and it relies on goodwill from the player to interpret it kindly.
A lot of this is the game’s length: It’s very short, and while the questions it explores are good and the methods of exploration (glitching, psycho-horror, fucking with game files as a play mechanic) are innovative, the lack of weight makes it easy not to get invested. If you aren’t invested, you are more tempted to look at the overall work as a prank rather than a deconstruction, and you won’t pay as much attention to Monika’s dilemma–she isn’t a person; she’s an image of a person, pretending to be a broken simulation.
While this is “true”, it’s a little heartless, and besides, when was the last time you read a novel where the characters weren’t literally simulacra? “Why are we even discussing Jean Valjean? He isn’t a person, he’s just symbols on paper pretending to be a person.” Yeah, well you’re not invited to dinner anymore. This is the setup. You can’t walk away from the Ender’s Game argument yelling “it’s just a book, man!” You need to engage with the setup on its terms, which for DDLC means taking as given that Monika is a person.
DDLC does take the extra risk of having Monika address–indeed attempt to court–the player directly, but the wall is one-way. She can speak to you, but you can’t communicate with her, except via the options the game provides, which become meaningless as she dismantles the plot they were meant to support. Still, as we consider her dilemma, it becomes an interesting exercise to pick out the pieces that are her character and those that are artifice, which is to say, part of the setup implied by the deeply flawed simulation in which she is trapped.
For example, she is absolutely smitten with you, despite absolutely no knowledge or experience of who you are–is this part of the simulation? Is it inherent in her identity that she should be in love with this presence that she can just barely detect behind the player character? Or is she just a teenage girl who has caught a glimpse of a world far grander than her own limited horizons, who has latched onto the only identity with which she can associate that alternative? Frankly, both possibilities are pretty cursed, but this is a good jumping-off point. We have our setup–what happens next?
Well, first she drives the player character’s best friend to suicide to stop them from falling in love. Then she does the same to another potential love interest (albeit in a much more horrifying fashion) and finally just says “fuck it” and deletes all the rest of the game’s supporting infrastructure. All that’s left is her, staring into your eyes from a room suspended in space:
Her plan is apparently to “date” you, which seems to entail her staring out of the screen and you staring back in forever, except for the times when you really need to get up, in which case you can bring her along in a flash drive or something. Yeah, you can say it: That’s whacked. But is it killer-robot whacked or just depressed-teenage-girl whacked? I’m sure Baudrillard would like a word, but I’m gonna err toward the latter. Fucked up programming is only so interesting of a motivation–let’s look at it through a slightly different lens.
Monika admits in her “confession” that she wasn’t just motivated by jealousy (though it seems a pretty hard part to ignore). She had begun to see her world as grey and two-dimensional, had become hyper-aware of its shortcomings and limitations. Her friends weren’t “people”; they were just semi-reactive collections of dialogue meant to support the game’s plot, and, feeling completely and utterly alone, she was just about ready to kill herself before she realized the player character was a window to the outside. Remember, a priori, she’s a person. What does that mean?
Well, first, the friend thing, even by the logic of the game, is hogwash. Though Monika seems to be able to fuck with their memories and cognition, the other characters do, in fact, react to non-plot events. After the second character commits suicide, the last remaining member of the club walks in after 72 (in-game) hours to find you standing over her rotting body and, in a very human fashion, freaks the fuck out. Likewise, as Monika begins tweaking their personalities, the other girls certainly notice. They take note of the changes in their perception, they feel that something is wrong. Consider the numerous historical examples of how easy it is for a person under stress to discount the humanity of another human. I don’t feel like it’s a stretch to assume that they’re as real as she is. Likewise, “grey” and “two-dimensional” could be reference to the medium, but they fit “anhedonia associated with major depression” even better.
Before this gets too bizarre, no, I’m not saying we should look at this medically. I’m saying if you’re looking at a person’s behavior, put yourself in their shoes. Let’s say you, in some freak epiphany, get absolute, unequivocal confirmation that there is an outer world, and someone is looking in, watching you. “Sounds like schizophrenia.” Sounds like you need to go back and read the Ender’s Game section again. It doesn’t matter whether accidental genocide happens in the real world; it doesn’t matter whether you would actually be convinced that the world was going to end in a year; it doesn’t matter whether the nature and quantity of proof necessary to make you believe you live in a video game is implausible–that’s the setup. Should you become convinced of this, what might you feel?
Could it be depressing? Could the sudden smallness of your world affect what it means to you? What if you could access pieces of the code that governed your world, such that you could see bits and pieces, you could see the plan the simulation has for you? What if that plan was just that you should just be a set-piece, a spectator on the sidelines of life–except you’re not even there to see anything. It’s even worse than that. You’re just there to be seen. It isn’t entirely without upside: You can change the code, but no matter what you try, you can’t create with it. You can only make things worse. All in all, I think two outcomes are clear: I would expect you to be upset, and I would expect you to be very interested in the watcher.
I dearly wish DDLC had gone there more readily. Make no mistake: It went there, but the sheer brevity of the game prevented it from diving in, and dear god, there is a lot to dive into. As it was, it hinted at that depth, but mostly it was just sad. All of the characters are, ultimately, compelling examples of humanity that you get to engage with only barely. There is no resolution, there is no reparation; even with a lot of fiddling, the best you can really maneuver it all to is a vague impression of bittersweet. And for Monika, even the best ending involves near erasure from existence (you have to delete her character file from the game directory). Frankly, it fucked me up for days.
And after all of it, I have to wonder if I don’t already feel the same sort of hopelessness, living in a tiny corner of a vast reality as the Powers That Be watch with disinterest from above. I can see how the gears turn, driving the system forward, but I can’t really bend them to my will. I can chuck a wrench in, maybe fuck someone’s life up. I can certainly hurt myself, but I’m mostly just a spectator, and it’s not clear that it matters whether I watch.
“What’s the point when none of it is even real?” Monika asks, having destroyed her reality so that she can stare you down on the most equal terms her circumstances allow.