“And maybe we’ll get lucky and we’ll both live again, well I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, don’t think so.”
I am sitting in front of my computer trying to write an article. I am confident that if I fail to write a compelling essay, I can try again. I can try again and again, as many times as I need to. Maybe I will miss my self-imposed deadline, but I can try again.
In the film Groundhog Day, a bitter weatherman (played by the always excellent Bill Murray) ends up trapped for a 24-hour eternity in a small town, reliving the same day over and over, until he eventually ‘gets it right,’ somehow. He improves himself, he learns to care about the people around him and he works to make their lives better. Something changes, the Groundhog Day prison erodes, and he continues to live a new life as a better person. I was surprised to hear that the term Groundhog Day now explicitly describes the idea of a situation that repeats itself over and over indefinitely, particularly in countries where the holiday is not celebrated (just as well, it is a pretty lousy holiday.)
There are two analogies that immediately spring to mind when looking at the paradigm of the Groundhog Day story. The first, which may have occurred to you due to the nature of this blog, is that it rather parallels how most video games play out from the perspective of the player. If the player fails, the game is rolled back to an earlier state and he tries again. And again and again, until he crosses that threshold and achieves that one perfect day, or at least one that is good enough. At the end, the only ‘real’ playthrough is the one where he did everything right. A dream come true.
The second, and I am certainly not the originator of this comparison, is the belief in reincarnation– that after you die you become someone else, and live another life, again and again, until you achieve enlightenment. Or some variant on that, I don’t have an exhaustive comparative knowledge of world religions.
Obviously, this belief is compelling. It’s powerful to believe that we can do it over and over again until we get it right. But is this something that’s powerful because we perceive its innate truth, or is it powerful because we wish were true?
I cannot write this article over and over, not forever. Eventually I will run out of things to say. Eventually life will intervene. Eventually I will die, and any nascent probability space articles in my mind will die with me. So it goes. And time doesn’t stop when we play games; we can’t play them over and over, forever. How much of what we love about games, though, is that they appeal to our wish to strive forever rather than to fail once? How dearly do we want our failures, or even our mediocre successes, to not last forever?
This is a facet common to every video game: We can try again and again, and the game will not hold it against us. Nothing is irreversible unless it is written into the game itself, in which case it isn’t our fault anyway. We are comfortable, I suppose, with the idea of some problems being out of our reach, even in an ideal world. After all, if nothing is out of our reach, then how terrible we must be for having let the world go so badly wrong when we could have done something, anything… but I digress.
This ability to Groundhog Day our way through a game is so tied into the nature of video games that we don’t really think that much about the implications. Because the outcome of the game is mutable based upon our input, because it is within the realm of our control, we wish to optimize it. We wish to reload our save when our favorite character dies. This, not flimsy empowerment fantasies, is the true extent of our escapism. Don’t you want to find your way to a world where you can do it all over again?
Perhaps these were the ideas that Jon Blow was grappling with when he developed Braid. Every game is implicitly about time-travel, so it is a logical step to bring that aspect to the surface. Even games that aren’t about time travel end up being about time travel. Games that are about time travel resonate because they seem true to the nature of games in a profound way. The story of Braid is about real powerlessness, not fictional empowerment. Braid shows us what our greatest victories in our fantasy worlds really add up to.
Acknowledging and embracing your medium is a powerful way to reduce the dissonance of it. The Blair Witch Project, in treating itself as a documentary, makes its fictional subject seem real. The novel House of Leaves takes this technique a step further by framing itself as a document of a document of a document, and by acknowledging this barrier it breaks it down: By stating that nothing written therein is really happening, but it might be writing about something that might have been written about something that might have happened, it puts itself on the same level as those horrible things you are certain must be happening just out of sight,out of hearing, out of reach. Is there a difference between a rumor of a rumor and a story of a story?
The medium supports a story where we go in like expert engineers and fix everything– to shape every world, piece by piece, into one more hospitable. Very few games are about regret or sorrow, because part of the fiction we buy into when we play games is that it can all be fixed if we only work hard enough. That it will all be okay.
(Some things will never go back to being okay again.)
We want to think we can be a new person. We want to live the American Dream, to work tirelessly until we construct a new life, a new self. We want to think we can escape the current of our past, but that’s not how it works. Your past is a path of clay, or maybe a statue, and you can’t reshape it, or change where it’s been, you can only keep adding clay, making a path to somewhere new or adding an extra finger or horn or eye to your statue– but the form shows through. Underneath, who you were will remain, until the weight is too much and the structure crumbles. We do not have an eternity to craft ourselves.
This is not a call to action. This is not a diatribe telling you what games should be. This is what games are. As surely as one page follows the next, a game can be replayed, perfection practiced piece by piece, until the terrible anxiety abides. Maybe that’s why we love them, our own little Groundhog Day simulators.
Never and forever, such powerful ideas.