Tag Archives: Problem Machine

I’ve talked before about how there’s no such thing as true randomness – that is, the term ‘random’ is just a shorthand for events with causality too complex to be determined by a human observer. However, because all events are connected by causality, because we live in a world of things affecting other things affecting other things, of butterfly effects, the term ‘random’ could be fairly used to describe nearly anything. For the same reason as there’s no such thing as random, then, there’s also no such thing as certain. You can never know with absolute certainty that a given event will happen, that a known effect will follow a cause, because there are a pseudo-infinite number of factors outside of our direct observation that may change the outcome.

What makes the idea of certainty so loaded is that so many hypotheticals are premised on certainty. This is part of the problem I was describing in my essay on strategy games last week: The outcomes for all your choices are known and quantifiable beforehand, making the choice of outcomes largely one of preference rather than guesswork and damage control. We can describe a trolley problem, where you choose to sacrifice one life to save five, but the real-world outcomes of our choices are impossible to conclusively determine beforehand, and all such moral and mortal calculus becomes suspect. When we believe that the ends justify the means, there’s an implied and unstated leap of faith that the ends are certain – which they never are.

One one level we know this. We comprehend that nothing is ever certain, that we cannot wholly rely on the outcome of our actions being what we predict – but it’s difficult to navigate day-to-day life keeping this in mind, so we just assume everything will basically function as intended until it fails to, and we’ll handle that on a case-by-case basis. This is fine. It’s fine! However, a great deal of discretion and self-interest go into when we take that leap of faith: If it’s more convenient to us to believe that something will definitely always work, we are certain. If we’d rather not take the plunge required by being certain of an outcome, even if it’s an extremely likely one, we will frame it by its uncertainty in our mind. Because nothing can be completely certain, anything we perceive to be certain or to be uncertain is perceived that way as much to motivate ourselves towards particular behaviors as by seriously evaluating its likely outcome. We quietly nudge ourselves one way or the other by reframing and restating the expected outcome: If you don’t want to tackle a task, you emphasize the undeniable risk of failure, and if you do you think only of what you will do after success. Or, frequently, the likelihood of a predicted outcome is not evaluated at all, but treated as axiomatic: Punish the child to prevent the misbehavior, lock up the criminal to prevent the crime, wage the war to end the injustice. Regardless of whether we have any information about whether these work, we definitely feel that they ought to work, that they are narratively if not statistically sound.

Since I mentioned hypotheticals, let’s bust out one of those hoary old questions. Say you’re given a box with a button: Every time you press the button, you get $10 and somewhere a random person dies. Well, that’s what you’re told anyway: All you can directly observe is that when you press the button you get $10. It’s obviously wrong to kill a person for $10, but it would be very easy to convince yourself that no one actually died when you pressed the button. I mean how would that even make any sense? Printing money is way more plausible than instant randomized death at range. Even if you did take it at its word, and were morally upstanding, would the next person who inherited the button be so? Or the next?

Eventually someone will convince themselves that it’s probably fine. It’s fine! Besides, they need the money. They press that button every second for a full 8 hour work day, 2,000 hours a year. At the end of the year, they’ve made $72 million dollars and killed 7.2 million people. $72 million dollars is approximately 0.4% of what Jeff Bezos makes in a year. 7.2 million deaths is approximately a 13% increase in the average number of deaths per year, so it would probably raise some eyebrows, but still I don’t know maybe it’s Coronavirus or something. Most folks would stop. Not everyone would. Certainly not everyone would if the box was less lethal – say if it was a lever that gave $100 but could only be pulled every ten seconds, or a $600 wheel that took a full minute to rotate. I don’t know if people would really notice an increased death rate of 0.2% per year. Maybe.

I suppose if there were perhaps 100 of these boxes, even if eventually the rate of death climbed towards that extra 13% it would be easy to assume it could be anything causing the extra deaths. Still, I imagine many box owners would stop using them once they understood what was going on, settle for their billions of dollars. Not all of them though. Over time, all 100 boxes would filter into the hands of one person, the guy who Does Not Give A Shit. This person has a lot of money, so he can afford to have other people use his money-death-wheel boxes for him. So now we have 100 boxes that kill one person every minute, in use 24/7. This would kill 52 million people a year, slightly less than doubling the annual death rate of humanity – but still not higher than the birth rate, so this probably wouldn’t kill the species. This would also earn $31.5 billion dollars a year. This is approximately half again what Jeff Bezos earns per year.

Now. None of this is happening. There are no magic death money wheel boxes. However, the same dynamics are at play: Power accumulates in the hands of those willing to accumulate it most ruthlessly, with the most disregard for the well-being of others. Part of the reason this is true is that it is so easy to believe in your own plausible deniability, to create uncertainty or certainty as it best suits you, to create the uncertainty that these deaths are really caused by you, to create certainty that it’s fine (it’s fine!), that you earned this money, that really the problem with the world is the surplus population anyway, to create certainty that you’re just doing what anyone would do. And yet the wheels turn, once a minute, and fall slowly but surely into the hands of those who care least about the future of humanity.

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The conceit of strategy games is an interesting one. Most strategy games place you as the general of an army, or some other authority figure, and tasks you with managing an army or other complex system and directing it towards victory. This makes sense as a sort of high level abstraction, but also makes it so abstract that aren’t playing so much as a leader but as a living embodiment of the army (or town, or empire) that you are meant to be managing. Giving orders is not a matter of communication with your officers or of drawing up plans, but of pressing buttons and relocating objects directly – and these orders have a narrow scope of what they can be (usually constrained to moving somewhere, building something, or attacking something), and are instantaneous, and are never misinterpreted or disobeyed.

This is a conception of what leadership looks like that is particularly interesting because it is highly erroneous. Of course, armies aren’t controlled by individuals, they are controlled by a chain of command, which has decisions made at every level, with each decision interpreted with varying levels of creativity, and communication channels that are not always reliable. Games are seldom interested in these sorts of leadership challenges, though, preferring to present players with the unsullied challenge of acquiring and allocating resources. However, this tendency extends beyond games: We seldom think of leadership in general this way, of a distant and easily-misinterpreted voice yelling from a rooftop – we instead tend to think of the leader as being in some way the heart of the system they are meant to command, to being the source of all its successes and its failures, and this is the understanding of leadership we’ve crystallized into our strategy games.

The outcome of a complex system seldom comes down to the actions of one individual. While leadership is a real skill with real consequences, the success of a system comes down to how well that system functions as a whole, not down to how well it’s managed at the top. Some more recent strategy games have a degree of awareness of this: You might have to manage individual leaders with individual personality traits, or balance a relationship with your labor force – but these are only treated as volatile resources for you, the leader, to manipulate into position, rather than actors in the system with their own approach and agenda.

These implicit assumptions about how things must work end up skewing the worlds depicted. There’s always a tendency in games to reify the idea of meritocracy, to attempt construction of a world where the most ‘worthy’ players, who understand and can execute on the systems, are rewarded with the most success. This assumption lands very differently, though, in games which portray one-time incidents with protagonists in unique situations, as in adventure or action games, than it does in games which span large number of people, such as city planning or military strategy.

We have a set of axioms that we call good game design: The player must be in ultimate control of their fate, the outcome of an action must be predictable before the action is undertaken, and there should be no options that are always the best or always useless. However, all of these are toxic as an implied model of functional reality: Individuals are seldom in ultimate control of their destiny, the outcome of our actions is never easy to predict, and there are many options that are clearly useless or obviously optimal. The reason why I say toxic, rather than merely inaccurate, is because this does start to hew rather closely to the right-wing conception of the world – where all negative consequences are due to individual failing, where if anything bad happens after someone’s actions they clearly deserved it because they ought to have known better, and where the ends can justify the most atrocious of means – after all, if you add the tactical decisions of ‘enhanced interrogation’, execution of dissidents, or even genocide to your game for historical or simulational reasons, you are then obliged to make them viable decisions for reasons of ‘game balance’.

This is one of the reasons why the idea of ’empathy games’, games designed to engender empathy for those who are systemically disadvantaged by putting you into their shoes, has never succeeded – because, in order to turn these challenges into a game, you must make them quantifiable and surmountable, which then leads the player to an even less empathetic, more right-wing mindset. To even create a simulation in the first place, you are required to systematize, in concrete terms, decisions and entities which have debatable actual effects in the world – that is, whatever our real opinions on militarized police and the carceral state, in a video game about city management adding a police station will reduce crime and reduced crime will make people happier – and it’s as simple as that. Nuance and complexity are lost because these are inimical to the fairness and clarity required by good game design as we understand it.

What might be a better model of leadership, then? It is frankly difficult to imagine one in the context of a single-player game. If we expand out to multiplayer, though, we can imagine one that is simultaneously co-operative and competitive – as so many real-life situations tend to be. One where the players are working towards the same goal, but have vastly different priorities as to how that goal is achieved. For instance, we could have a game where the players jointly control a factory: One, the CEO, tries to maximize the corporation’s monetary output at all costs, while the other, the worker, attempts to gain enough pay to survive on while expending the minimum possible cost to their time and well-being. Neither one is particularly interested in the well-being of the other, but both are interested in keeping the factory running smoothly. We could add other players, such as a spouse who has to manage the worker’s resources, a customer who tries to purchase goods as cheap as possible, or a manager who has to be the intermediary between the CEO and the worker, to create a fuller and more interesting simulation Of course, one could ask why the worker needs the CEO at all. Regardless, another version of this might be the general and the soldier, where the general needs to take a tactical objective at any cost, but the soldier’s goal is to stay alive. One might wonder why taking that objective is worth the soldier dying for. Nevertheless.

The problem, really, is that fairness is treated as an axiom of game design, but as exasperated mothers everywhere like to say the world isn’t fair. This rock and this hard place keep butting up against each other, and slowly the tenets of game design start to give way – and we become more willing to explore the territory of unfairness, through the random territory of roguelikes to the volatile war zone of battles royale.

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As mentioned in the previous post, I spent the last month working on a side project. For most of this time, this project was really the only thing on my plate: Every day, I had one thing to do, and that was to work on my game jam game. This, it turns out, sucks: For some reasons I knew but forgot about, and for some reasons which I only discovered over the course of the month.

I have a lot of work habits I’ve acquired over the years, mostly to enforce some degree of work-life balance in a life that doesn’t have a lot of hard time or space boundaries. I don’t have an office to go to, I don’t have many obligations, I don’t have to be anywhere or do anything at any particular time – so, in that context, it’s very easy to be constantly stressed out about what I ought to be doing. All existence becomes subservient to the work I could be doing, and whenever I’m not actively working I feel like I’m fucking up – and all this stress leaves me too tired to actually put in work, creating a feedback loop. And so on, and so forth, which is why I try now to dedicate blocks of my day to different things, and to set some hard barriers about when I’m allowed to work, so that I’m not constantly ashamed of everything I’m not doing instead of excited about what I am doing.

That’s why, though I am satisfied with the result, I think my approach to this game jam sucked. But enough about that.

The roughest part was the week leading up to and out of the game jam deadline, when I still couldn’t really abandon the project but it also didn’t really feel complete, and I had no real feedback for how it was being received. Time spent on minor tweaks, on fixing pressing issues, on debugging and testing – this is always a huge part of game development, but it’s tremendously demoralizing. Not only is the work itself stressful and often tedious, but there’s a huge difference between the experience of producing something which could turn out to be anything and the process of improving something by increasingly narrow degrees when you already know exactly what it is. There is no more discovery, only maintenance. There is no more creation, only refinement. The process itself isn’t terrible except for there is an accompanying sense of loss, a sense of potential removed and never to be rediscovered – a sense that everything you’ve made is egregiously outweighed by everything you haven’t, a sense of a backlash as the infinite possibilities of an idea collapse into the singular reality of whatever you’ve made of it, no matter what it happens to be.

I’m over it. I’m feeling good now. It was a pretty lousy week, though, and I have to think about what it’s going to be like when I finish a bigger project. What’s it going to be like when I finish EverEnding? What’s it going to be like to part ways with something I’ve spent so much time with, with something that’s defined my life? Will it not feel a bit like murder as much as birth to reduce the manifold potential in my imagination down to a singular product, a piece which can be experienced, a game which can be bought and sold?

I wonder for how many artists this has become a trap. I wonder how many set themselves projects that can never be completed simply to avoid the post-partum pains of crystallizing infinite potential into finite creation. I wonder if this might not be part of why my game jam project was a meditation on being caught between the future and the past, of the person you were yesterday and the person you might be tomorrow. I can see a future where I’m caught up in a ceaseless present, groundhog day over and over, pushing a stone up a hill so it can roll down, and I think I must make plans to avoid it.

How do you work with an eye towards completion? How can you take joy in the process but still steer towards a goal, and not trip over it when you get there? Perhaps the loss of completion is something you just have to get used to, in the way you get used to your other little tragedies and lost loves, through pain.

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For the past month, I’ve been working on my entry to the Idle Thumbs community game jam, Wizard Jam X. This is the final Wizard Jam, due to the Idle Thumbs podcast going into a long-term hiatus from which it may never awake. I really wanted to make something special for this one. I think I achieved about half of what I’d hoped to do, but I am reasonably satisfied with the result.

Without further context or explanation, I present Eight Seconds: Manipulated Through Time.

The concept of Wizard Jam is to take the title of one of the Idle Thumbs podcasts – or one of their several associated podcasts – and to make a game with the same title, which may or may not have anything whatsoever to do with its source material. Later Wizard Jams have diverged from this formula somewhat in order to keep things fresh, but I’ve always been a fan of this approach so I stuck with it. In this case, I chose the title “Manipulated Through Time”. I always find it interesting imagining to what degree we might be capable of representing time travel in video games – We have tremendous control of allowing the player to revisit everything prior to the current moment in the game, since we can freely record and play back those previous game states – but can we make it possible for them to interact with the future in a meaningful way?

Well, that’s still an interesting idea, but I wasn’t really able to robustly pursue it here because it turns out my hands were quite full with allowing the player to interact with the past – though the idea of these two interactions being equivalent is also presented. It was important to me to make it so the player interacted with that past in a meaningful way – not just as a static recording, but as something more tangible – and, in so doing, that also means that you are directly affecting your future self with the actions you’re taking now.

This is always true, just revealed a bit more explicitly here.

My original concept of the game was that every minute, time would be reversed. For each minute, you would interact with your shadow self, which was doing everything you just did but in reverse, and by so doing you would navigate puzzles and so forth. While thinking about this, I realized that in that first minute, before there was any shadow to interact with, the player would have no idea what was going on – and that even once the idea of the time reflection began to make sense, controlling your inputs precisely, with reversal in mind, for an entire minute would still be nearly impossible. The obvious solution was to shorten this feedback loop to a shorter period of time so it was more feasible to observe the results of your actions. I waffled for a while considering different time values and eventually settled on eight seconds as an appropriate length for the time loop. I also eventually ended up making variants on this time reflection idea – you’d have reflections that reversed the flow of time, or echoes that moved the same temporal direction as you but with an eight-second delay, or reflections that had an echo of their own, and so forth. This undermined the original idea of a time loop where you were interacting with yourself directly, but by the time I got to this point I’d forgotten that was the original idea – and only remembered just now, when describing it here. I included the duration into the title to make it a little bit clearer what was happening (the tutorial for a game can begin with the title!) and also had some slight visual changes with each tick and each “reversal” to add to that clarity.

Because the concept was so innately difficult to wrap one’s brain around, I tried to make the game’s other elements as simple as possible. I had some idea of physics puzzles, of raising platforms with your reflection in order to traverse them, of tossing items to yourself – and, while these aspects are not entirely absent, they’re all done within the incredible simple framework of doors, switches that open doors, and boxes that can go on switches. However, because the player can be duplicated, and because whatever the player is holding when they’re duplicated can also be duplicated, even the simplest of these can become remarkably complex in practice.

What I came to realize over the course of the project is that there’s two somewhat contradictory sets of goals at play: That which builds interesting and thought-provoking puzzles using the mechanics, and that which builds an interesting moment-to-moment experience using the mechanics. These aren’t entirely contradictory of course: The idea of a fraught cooperation with your past selves implies challenges to be surmounted, so developing the theme requires challenge and developing challenge requires use of the theme, but there are points where these impulses push me in opposite directions. For instance, a huge amount of clarity could have been added to the puzzle solving if I locked the camera into a top-down perspective and made the movement turn-based – but this would also reduce the sense of the self being reflected, and reduce your interaction to a player and a pawn rather than a player with an avatar representing that player. In this case, I made the decision to present the game in first-person early on in production before realizing these ramifications – so, in the end, it becomes more of an experience than a proper puzzle game, with most puzzles being solved by fiddling with the scenario until an answer emerges rather than actually being thought through.

When it came to the appearance of the game, I wanted something highly detailed but not necessarily realistic. I was imagining the hyper-detailed surreal scenes of Twin Peaks or the minimalist stop motion of the 1989 Oscar-winning animated short Balance, something that felt very physical and real but without any grounding in the physical limitations of reality. I ended up leaning heavily on a free (deprecated) 3d tileset called Simple Corridors – because it was free and had PBR (Physically Based Rendering) materials, which is a fancy name for including a standard set of rendering textures that approximate the appearance of real materials. I originally planned on having a few separate environments, but since I didn’t have the time or skillset to make this type of asset on my own and didn’t want to break the bank buying professional assets I ended up making every area of the game a variant on the first tutorial zone I created – which, honestly, was probably all for the better, since it added to the thematic idea of being suspended in time.

For the music, I wanted to integrate both reversed and unreversed instruments, and have it be at times unclear which was which – it was also, since timing was such a huge part of the game, an opportunity to convey the eight seconds conceit through another information channel. I could have, and perhaps should have, executed this as a static music track, but instead I created a simple adaptive music system using several separate music stems for each instrument, each being 8 or 16 seconds long and each with an assigned intensity value. Trigger volumes set the music intensity as the player progresses through the level, which randomly plays a random sample of the appropriate intensity at timed intervals – many of which are reversed versions of other samples. The basic idea of this worked really well, creating something that sounded more or less intentional and built over time – but, because Unity’s support for playing arbitrary sound samples is much less robust than it is for creating a dedicated sound emitter, I had a number of issues with controlling these sounds, from slight desyncs caused by frame timing to large variations created by the game being paused for the settings menu. Also, as I built the musical components out more the administrative overhead of managing even this relatively simple song structure became significant. It was a worthwhile experience, but I’ll likely try to integrate one of the existing middlewares for adaptive music next time I want to do something like this, just to have a proper editor at my disposal. All in all, I’m pleased but not entirely satisfied with how the musical component turned out – it sounds interesting some of the time, and seldom degrades into true cacophony, but it does sound like a slipshod implementation of the idea it represents – which it is. I decided that sound effects would just detract from the surreal experience, though, and didn’t bother with them.

Other technical difficulties emerged through the time reversal system itself, which should be a surprise to no one. Recording and playing back a character’s history is fairly trivial, but recording and playing back a history in a way that still acts on the world, and that can be acted on, is a more significant challenge. All values must be relative instead of absolute – and movement values must be relative both to the world and to the facing of the character. Partway through the project I decided to vary the levels by mirroring them and scaling them, and I hadn’t considered earlier on what effects this might have on game entities which existed within these worlds. The reflection of the player was modified by the transformation of the world it was placed in, which is thematically interesting but absolutely not my desired result. Suddenly whenever they were supposed to turn right they’d turn left, entirely because right and left had traded places in the world they were now put in. Other issues came in when I added the ability for the player and the reflections to grab and throw each other, which then created rotational feedback loops where, when the rotation of the character was recorded for the next playback, it would record both the player and the reflection’s rotation summed together. Some of these issues may still exist, though I tried to stomp out as many as I could – but even aside from the technical challenge of implementing a solution, figuring out what a solution even ought to look like was frequently a non-trivial design challenge. What does it mean to pick up or drop an item in reverse, and what effect should these actions have on the world? What degree of physical interaction between the player and their reflection enabled interesting outcomes, and what was unfeasible to implement? What was likely to break the game? I had to answer each of these, and though I ended up approaching most of these conservatively it was still an unpredictable game and prone to weird breaks which I had to take a few extra days to debug.

I’m happy with how the project turned out, but I don’t think my methodology was very good. I dropped everything to work on this, and I think the end result of that was unhealthier work habits and hours, a lack of focus, and a bunch of extra stress I probably didn’t need to deal with. Though this is the last Wizard Jam (for now?), I will likely participate in some other game jams in the future – and these tough lessons are ones I think I’d better keep in mind when I do.

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“What does it matter, a dream of love or a dream of lies / we’re all gonna be the same place when we die”

-Kathleen Brennan & Tom Waits

“Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different!”

-Kurt Vonnegut

The hardest part of doing anything is confronting the question of why you’re doing it. Every question of intent inevitably leads to further questions – of whether that intent is likely to be fulfilled, of what the costs will be along the way, of what greater intent that intent seeks to fulfill… and each of these then leads to further questions, about what ultimately the purpose of existence and creation are, until eventually, inevitably, a negative end point is reached, at which no more answers are available. The tendency to ask “why?” is innate to us from birth, only given shape when we learn the word itself – the habit only dies off when we come to realize that at the end of the chain of why’s we will eventually find nothing.

So we stop asking why.

It’s only natural to shy away from the end of the knowable by becoming unknowing. There’s always this vague ambition of immortality through art or science, of extending one’s existence by the reputation and utility of one’s accomplishments, but this isn’t an ideal that holds up under scrutiny. One by one, the dominoes will be knocked over, and eventually the universe itself will cease to exist in any meaningful way. Perhaps longevity is possible, but immortality certainly is not.

We are finite – as a species, and as individuals even more so. Perceiving our own boundaries, our limitations, is uncomfortable. Any endeavor, no matter how noble or worthwhile, can be evaluated as pointless and worthless on the scales of long-term universal demise. If you ask yourself ‘why’ enough, you will be left empty-handed and beyond reason.

And yet.

As individuals, we fight for our survival, because to not do so is to embrace non-existence, and existence is the main thing we do. The society is an extension of the individual, and we fight for the existence of society because if it fails we fail. Humanity is an extension of society, and so society fights for humanity, because if humanity fails society fails, and so forth outwards – if the ecosystem fails humanity fails, if the solar system fails the ecosystem fails, if the universe fails the solar system fails. Though our ability to affect the highest tier is nearly non-existent from our positions as individuals, it’s all still connected. What we are left to strive for is, if not immortality, a kind of sustained long-term health of the systems we are intrinsically part of. We create things for the larger shared benefit of those things having been created.

What’s left is a kind of intellectual and utilitarian shared hedonism. We fight, we build, we work, for the shared joy and understanding of the system we are part of. For our own joy and understanding in making things, for the joy and understanding of others when we share them. There is no eternity, but we can make ourselves stronger, more thoughtful, and happier right now by sharing what we have. There might be no forever, but there is a tomorrow, and we can keep fighting for that for as long as there will be tomorrows.

We’re all in this together.

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I’m still processing the end of Twin Peaks: The Return.

When I was a kid I was fixated for a while on the importance of the number two. Two, I reasoned, was the number that was the building block of all other numbers: Any number could be expressed as a combination of twos, of doublings and divisions and so forth. This probably prefigured my destiny as someone who works with computers, and while there was some degree of naivete at play I do think I was onto something, some part of a big idea. Two is the number that represents the concept that there can be more than one of the same thing – Which, while one might assume it to be a property of nature, is a human invention. The conception of a creature or object as a discrete unit, and the idea that there then could be more of them, is the beginning of the mathematical system of abstraction, which eventually leads to such wild concepts of the idea of there being 0 of those units or, nonsensically, absurdly, a negative number of them.

Two, as a number, contains the implicit concept of boundary, of demarcation, of this and that. I’d say division but that means something else in math. I’d say differentiation but that also means something else in math.

All of which, by a long and roundabout path, brings me back to Twin Peaks. This show is many things, but one of them is an extended rumination on this idea of duality – at first through the fairly straightforward lens of places and people that are beautiful and friendly on the outside but troubled with deep darkness within, then refracted through increasingly surreal and abstract versions. Contrasts of light and dark, love and hate, future and past, and how we get locked into these patterns with no way out. The name itself alludes to this idea, that there are two extremes – but that the residents of Twin Peaks, that all of us, spend most of our time somewhere in between.

The symbolism and causality of Twin Peaks are not clear cut, and I’d hardly venture to suggest I have any definitive answers as to what happens or why. All I’d like to do here is explore some of the impressions and ideas imparted by the show. Some spoilers will be discussed from this point on. You should watch the show first if you have any intention of doing so.

There are locations in Twin Peaks that seem to exist outside of the world, but my impression is that these don’t so much represent an opposite extreme, a dark world to our light world, as they do a pivot point, a place in between. This is the place through which change happens, through which human impulses are laundered and warped. It is timeless because it is the meeting of past and future, in the same way that the gravity of two masses cancels out directly in between them, in the same way that the center of a spinning fan is stationary, and because this is the point of equivalence this is where people freely change places with their opposite-but-equal doppelgangers.

What if you woke up tomorrow and were someone else? Someone with all the same memories, but a different perspective on what they meant, what they signified? How would you know the difference? Isn’t that just what happens, by degrees, every time we wake up? What if you became the worst version of yourself, everything you feared you might be? What if you were certain this had already happened? It’s never clear how Bob ‘possesses’ people, inspires them to hurt and kill those they love, but it seems like evil goes where evil’s wanted. There’s always a seed of the hurt he wants to put out into the world before he gets there.

It’s never really clear what Bob gets from it, whether he lives out his desire to kill through his victims or merely foments their own murderous lusts and intents – but perhaps desire is the wrong framework, and he’s more of a force of nature than a malicious entity, more of a personification of desire than a person with desires. But he grants power… in the way that a contract with a demon might – or in the way mere determination and disregard for the lives of others might. As strong as Bob might make those under his thrall, we see others find the same sort of strength through other forms of selfishness. In strange, petty, trivial ways, poor half-blind Nadine finds her way into incredible strength – and then, perhaps, back out of it, when she learns how to see through other people’s eyes.

What struck me most about the season as a whole was how much it knew what viewers wanted to see and steadfastly kept it away from them. We wanted to see Cooper, we wanted to see problems solved, we wanted to know what happened next, we wanted an ending. We wanted more Twin Peaks. There is no more, there can be no more, of what Twin Peaks was though. You cannot, as I said last week, recreate the experience of experiencing something for the first time. We can’t keep ourselves from trying, though. We’re locked in the middle, immobile, between the future and the past, where everything seems stuck in place and where time has no meaning, where we’re not sure if the person who woke up in our bed is the person who went to sleep in it. There’s not going to be an ending, there’s not going to be a wiki with definitive answers. There’s a gap in the center, a hollowness, where gravity can’t reach. The place in-between.

This is the water, and this is the well. Drink full, and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes, and dark within.

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Nostalgia’s not what it used to be. With a small delay, the standardized media practice of selling the same thing over and over again becomes elevated, refreshed, a satisfying throwback, a novel familiarity and a familiar novelty. Every new film franchise entry is a New Coke in Coke Classic’s clothing. They keep trying to make a new Star Wars, Lion King, or Ghostbusters and each time it seems like they miss the target, that they’ve changed too much, or changed too little, or somehow both at the same time. They miss the mark because it’s impossible to recreate the experience of experiencing something for the first time. They miss the target because there is no target to hit.

This is a struggle that all sequels have to contend with at one point or another, but the problem becomes more difficult and complex the longer the delay between entries. If you make a sequel to something that came out a year or two ago, it’s enough to continue the plot while still remaining relatively true to the spirit of the work – but if it’s meant to be a sequel to something released decades ago, then the desire you contend with becomes one, not merely of continuation, but of recreating an artifact of a bygone era within the constraints of a vastly different cultural context.

So it seems that when we make sequels, when we continue an old story, we must step beyond our nostalgia. It is uncomfortable. No work can compete with the selectively-edited memory of its predecessor. It’s hard to move forward and to be something new when you’re tied inexorably to your past. The twin demands of moving forward while being anchored in place are too much for most artists to handle. One-hit wonderment is not merely a symptom of artists with too shallow a well, but artists who feel constrained to be exactly the same person tomorrow that they were yesterday – or artists who don’t survive the backlash from fans when they fail to do so.

We keep hunting for something that can’t be found. Nostalgia is the pain of knowing that the ingredients of your existence have been discontinued, that there are things you have lost that cannot be regained. In our more positive moments, it’s easy to think of all the wonderful things we have now that we may not have had before, or to remember all of the awful and uncomfortable moments that plagued our past lives and we’ve left behind. But the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and the roses are always redder on the other side of our rose-colored glasses.

I finished belatedly watching through the third season of Twin Peaks a short while ago, and I keep thinking about the show’s relationship with the past. It’s hard to say exactly what a show as strange as Twin Peaks is about, but it seems a story about how trying to connect with the past is impossible. Memory is a game of telephone, and every repetition adds a little bit of noise and changes the message a little bit. Like a wax cylinder, you can’t play memories back without re-remembering them, without overwriting, embellishing, deforming the shape of whatever it was you experienced however long it was ago. Other peoples’ stories become our memories. Our personal history is just another TV show we watched 25 years ago. You can’t go home again, you can’t go back to the beginning, and if you try you’ll just find a disconnect, a spiral where you wanted a circle.

We keep trying to tell cyclical stories, stories of how history repeats, and it’s starting to seem like a form of denial. History will, eventually, cease to repeat itself, and we’re getting more and more nervous that that date, beyond which there will be no more dates, may be approaching. Much as ghosts are both terrifying and a welcome reassurance of life after death, imprisonment in endless cycles is terrifying and a welcome reassurance of life after life. So we beat back, boats against the current, borne on ceaselessly into the future.

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