The Substrate of the Purely Villainous

Any true aficionado of the villainous–of antagonists in film, literature, interactive media–knows that the truly diabolical are not those with mundane or even sympathetic aims. They are those whose reprehensibility is alien to us, unnerving in their capacity for estrangement from the normal motivations which occupy our species. We, as consummate consumers, eventually tire of plot after plot instigated by the villain’s lust for power, vengeance, wealth or just plain lust. What retains the ability to frighten is rather what we cannot understand save as an abstraction, something so insidious that its mere existence is an affront to our conception of reality.

Indeed, only these antagonistic forces evoke the sort of mortal terror that not only puts the protagonist’s goal at hazard, but also their soul. Doubly so if the metaphysics of a soul are not implied by the narrative, for then these villains alone transmogrify physical danger into the metaphysical. They embody forces of nature more than they inhabit real people or mortal coils. If anything, their mortal coil indicates that something is very off about them. Their appearance is of one who has a too perfect understanding of how to clothe oneself in the trappings of everyday humanity. An idea of clothing not as an expression of the self, but a shell to inhabit for the simple fact that one must inhabit a shell in order to inhabit the world. One cannot go nude. If one goes nude, one is a monster. Horrid and bare to the world. These villains we are concerning ourselves with are not monsters, or at least not by conventional definition, but something else. What they are is perhaps best drawn from what they represent: Quandaries and Intrusions.

Each one of these characters holds in common that they are just human enough to evince some ephemeral link to a rational world. But they are closer to aliens playing dress-up than they are to real people you might meet out in the world. However, neither are they sociopaths or chameleons. Again, their purpose is to cast doubt on their human nature while also maintaining a distorted approximation of it. The element of their horror is drawn from that fact, that they are tangentially related to normal everyday life while at the same time occupying the underworld, in some ways the True World, that is its substrate. It is this heraldry from another domain that unnerves us, a domain in which the mundane concerns are transmuted into their most absolute incarnations. This is what makes them Quandaries, this transmutative property, and that they pose such a question to the nature of human existence itself. Put simply: They offer the most horrible decision point for the human question. Put simpler: they are the rock amid the river of human experience.

For instance, and perhaps most notoriously, No Country For Old Men is defined by primary antagonist Anton Chigurh’s fatal obsession with the outcome of a coin toss. He is the personification of inevitability, of misfortune and, in some ways, death itself. But his relation to normal things, such as the character Carson Welles, and the comparatively normal world of bounty hunting moors him to our real world and so exemplifies his difference from it, transmutes him into something almost inhuman. We are left with the dual sense that he is certainly human, but so perverted as to become something like a force of nature. His insistence on the chance of a coin toss brings this to the fore by offering the grounds for a seemingly peaceable encounter that gradually becomes understood as representing the incipient obliteration of the self if not navigated correctly. All the while the Quandary is expressing horrifying calm and certitude. It is disconcerting to say the least.

Perhaps no other character in creative media inhabits this concept more than The Cowboy in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. We are not even given a name or the slimmest backstory to this advent in the film. But he is strictly human. His appearance is strange, but readily understood. His manner is strange; but surely there are strange enough people in the world, not least in Hollywood? What really grounds him is his relationship to the story at large, his insistence that one particular girl be cast in the film (and not Naomi Watts) that lies at the center of the plot. A seemingly mundane concern that in any other movie would be given enough exposition to justify his connection to it. But not so here. In fact, it is this absence, this only tangential connection that transmogrifies his conversation with the fictional film’s director into something more than a binary choice over the casting of a lead actor. Before they even reach this demand, it is heavily implied that if Justin Theroux’s character doesn’t wisen up, something very bad will happen. Something that goes beyond the ordinary, something on the order of the total obliteration of the soul.

Indeed, the entirety of Mulholland Drive is this way. It showcases the intrusion of the unreal into the mundane, which is perhaps Lynch’s finest quality as a filmmaker. Those in the know will also be aware of the infamous diner scene. However, I don’t consider that representative of a Quandary, but an Intrusion. Much like the Mystery Man in Lynch’s Lost Highway, this scene does not represent some sense of absolute moral judgement, but rather the absolute meaningless of the mundane world in the face of an otherworldly and almost Platonic truth. Twin Peaks famously embodies this quality, with the Black Lodge being literally cast as intruders into the normal world and order of things, albeit brought about by human error. And unlike Quandaries, which force us to confront the ineluctable and the inevitable, Intrusions remind us that there is a world both within and outside our own that renders our struggles and connivances and frustrations as the petty flailing of moths about a flame.

Together these characters personify two concepts that are present in nearly everyone’s day-to-day life: the fear of death and its moral judgement or accounting for one’s deeds; and the knowledge that there is a secret world which permeates or exists outside our daily lives. The one is responsible for bringing to the fore all that which haunts us and forces us to reckon with it, hence the Quandary they represent. The other is responsible for the things we would rather not think about or contemplate, the scope of which would perhaps drive us mad, hence their Intrusion into our world. That they act as avatars for very existential threats and fears that are recurrent throughout our lives elevates these villains into something timeless and pure, empowers them to reach deeper into our psyche than any common creature or killer. True fear cannot exist without true evil, and true evil is only invoked by that which we cannot understand–only recognize as dim constructs of our own souls.

I Will

I will run until there is no more earth beneath.

I will run until the lightning strikes.

I will run until the stars enfold.

I will run.

~~~

I will run until I dance upon the waves.

I will run until the clouds throw down their ladders.

I will run until the sun lances through the dark.

I will run.

~~~

I will run until I find every horizon.

I will run until the spirits are revealed.

I will run until all else peels back from the heavens.

I will run.

~~~

I will.

I promise.

I will.

I promise I will run until I can’t anymore.

World of Theorycraft, or the Subjective Value of Digital Labor: Part One (Youth)

Reliving an essentially static experience as two entirely different people is a unique–and rare–opportunity. How often is it that we may revisit some moment in our lives that for all intents and purposes has remained the same? How can we? Any place or person is not the same after the passing of years, not really. Others have changed with you, the years have had their way with even the stone. This is especially true now, in the age of rampant climate change, where even a period of decades may have fundamentally changed the geography of your memory. Indeed, during the 21st century, we might say it is impossible to thoroughly make a return as a different person to a wholly stagnant realm–whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. Real, actual matter and substance obeys the rules of reality and proceeds and exists without us or our supervision or even our regard. This is object permanence. But this is only true in reality, something so vast and beyond our understanding that we exist at its whim and not the other way around. It is not true in realities we have constructed. The example I put forward–and hold your laughter–is World of Warcraft.

Within the past year or so, Blizzard has done something unheard of or at least so infrequently done as to be unheard of. Not in the sense of triumph or achievement–as has been said of other recent developments in electronic media, such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and the forthcoming release of Cyberpunk 2077–but rather the boldfaced recycling of old content. I am, of course, talking about World of Warcraft: Classic, the roots of which go back to Nostalrius a fanmade endeavor to retain the time-honored initial release of the popular MMORPG. This formerly little known passion project had been gaining more and more interest as interest conversely waned in the actual retail version of the game itself, and so the sharks at Blizzard, as they so often do, spotted the chance for a cash grab. Blizzard ordered a cease-and-desist and promptly “began development” of their own attempt at nostalgia which would become WoW: Classic as we know it today.

And what a shot of nostalgia it is. The rush of the drums at the login screen. The lofty stone of the Dark Portal, swirling with chaotic energies and ready to usher you into a world of magic and mystery and blood. At once you begin to settle into a strange sensation not felt in so long a time: familiarity. It is not unlike going home. It is not unlike waking up and realizing that these last years and all their troubles have merely been a dream. Indeed, for so many the roads and dungeons of Azeroth were home and dreamlike in their capacity to whisk one off into a world so engrossing the loading screen would caution them to be sure to not forget the world outside. Character creation is like visiting a motley of old friends, once so intrinsically familiar that their absence is only truly felt upon rediscovery. The origin point for each path glimmers like the light eking from a hardly cracked door. Bleak skies over the gloom and glades of Tirisfal, the arid red rock of Durotar, the rolling plains of Mulgore, the peaceful forests of Elwyn, and so on. Each one a microcosm of a time in the avid player’s youth. Then, with a name and a few clicks of the mouse, this world once again becomes your own–for a time.

This is a feeling many will know who had played and are now playing again what is now a cultural titan, but not so long ago was the marker for a total and complete dork. I was one of those dorks. Indeed, I was and am the ultimate dork. I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons since I was 8. I’ve created my own RPG rules set. I’ve written ten books and devoted tens of thousands of words to setting notes that other people will probably never see. This is not to brag, but to press home that despite appearances you will not find a bigger dork. So it is with some emphasis that I tell you how pumped I was as kid to throw together an Orc (my favorite race since playing Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness as a very wee lad), give him an Orc sounding name, and get rolling as a bloodthirsty Warrior ready to deal death and collect plunder.

And yet for all my cultic devotion to things nerdy, especially for anything pumped out by Blizzard up to and including circa 2004, I found my enthusiasm quickly begin to wane. Once I ventured outside the Valley of Trials, triumphed over the insanity of Barrens Chat and progressed into the grueling Thousand Needles, each rotation (Charge, Rend, Battle Shout if it wasn’t active, Heroic Strike, etc.) became a chore. Each quest became a task. The excitement bled away until all that was left was the incomprehensible drag that was leveling your character to 60 and your professions to 300 and playing the auction house to get enough gold for your mount and so on. Everything became what is known unaffectionately in all gaming circles as “The Grind”.

I simply could not tolerate it. My young brain was moving a mile a minute and required much noise, many flashing lights and moving objects. I quickly would retreat into Halo or Call of Duty or any of the many, many single-player RPG’s that sapped away hours and hours of my youth (Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, Planescape: Torment and Fallout). I was an aficionado, you see, a lover of many digital delights, and the time sink of killing the same mob over and over and over to get item after item after item or running the same dungeon a minimum of 10 times to get a much needed piece of equipment could simply not appeal to me. Instant gratification was my muse. I wanted to move at my own pace, to be rewarded specifically at the rate of the work I was putting into the game. Patience was unknown to me and the frustration very familiar that comes on when confronted with the absence of reciprocation. If you’re anything like me, Dear Reader, you’re beginning to know all too well what I’m talking about. Because of course, after all, what I’m talking about is that other “Grind”. The Real Grind. The Dark Tunnel At The End of Which We Hope Is A Light.

What I’m talking about is Life and the labor of Living.

As a child, you have no concept of what that truly means. What is life as a child? What is the labor of living as a child? I speak from the experience of being a habitually depressed child with a less than stellar childhood, so let’s dispense with any indictment of the argument predicated upon some childhoods entailing some labor. Ideally, and for many, childhood is the period of years that will come to form one’s peak personal and emotional freedom. To paraphrase an expert on the existential dread that waits at the other side of the field of youth, children do not yet have any concept of what “day-in, day-out” truly means. And the young do not yet have any concept of labor or labor as it will come to mean in adulthood. Labor to a child is a simple matter of arithmetic. If I add one stone to the pile, there will be one more stone on the pile; conversely, if I take one away, there will be one less. A simple system of reciprocity. The idea of random apportioning is anathema, as it inherently is senseless at best and unjust at worst. Children are mirrors for the world around them. They haven’t yet been chewed up. A child can tell the just from the unjust by mere instinct. And so by mere instinct a child, barring extenuating circumstances, can suss out an exploitative and unfair system when they encounter one.

Enter again World of Warcraft, inheritor of the social perils begun by Everquest. A lack of patience can render large swaths of the game a chore, but what truly deadens the experience for a child (or at least this former child) is the lack of fairness. “Life isn’t fair” is a common refrain among the playerbase in answer to any complaints regarding the game mechanics. Indeed, the game mechanics themselves are designed with that refrain in mind. How else do you continue shilling millions of people out of $15 a month? Surely not out of brand loyalty or legitimate entertainment, but by exploiting that reptilian desire to see numbers increase. Much has been written on the similarity between gambling and the mechanics of loot acquisition in gaming. World of Warcraft was perhaps the first significant example of this before the modern day boogeyman of Loot Boxes. So I won’t delve into that too much here.

Rather the point is more that this lack of fairness, which children who are able to afford gaming PC’s do not yet readily understand as an element of the real world, is repugnant to them. They can’t understand it. For the most part life has supplied them with what they needed and did not ask that they earn it first. If they earned anything, they earned it on the basis of reciprocity and not randomization. Many younger players will not go on to hit max level, to raid with prominent guilds, to make “World First’s” of this or that new boss. They will leave and return and leave and return until months or years they later reach something of an endgame. Only for another expansion to drop. Or another content patch. Or, god forbid, a sequel. One understands how a child could tire of this repetitive and sluggish pace, a repetitiveness and sluggishness not uncommon in adult life, which they have yet to experience. I might even suggest that World of Warcraft, in its purest and most original form, is quite the system of training wheels for how to survive in the capitalist and cutthroat nightmare into which we all one day age.

A nightmare we will explore afresh in Part Two: Maturity…

(Note: I am speaking under the assumption of a generally privileged childhood, as that was my experience at least in a monetary regard, which in many cases can be assumed of WoW’s playerbase.)

A Thing That May Only Fall

These are the darker nights of the soul.

All in which the wind is a slow rolling thing.

A zephyr ethereal

Empyrean and ephemeral

Coming from some farther off place

~

I will never reach that summit.

I will dance about its feet.

I will show the roots who I am.

I will know the crevice for the secret held.

~

What am I to do with all this oncoming?

Black hearts, blacker tongues of wave after wave

The water laps at a shore that never ends.

Rocky shoal

Whirling away into the night of the storm

~

I will pick the stones up from where I see them.

I will toss them all back from whence they came.

I will expect all that I will.

I will accept all that I will not.

~

There is a cadence to the end of time.

The dance of a whirlwind

All my thoughts obey the current.

Again and again, what remains?

The terrifying freedom of a thing that may only fall.

He Took An (Existential) Arrow To The Knee (Soul)

I’m not going to lead with my usual narrative build-up. The seed of this post is so well-known as to be a cultural artifact for anyone below the age of 40 and over the age of 10. Indeed, no sooner will someone within this demographic hear the words “I used to be an adventurer like you…” before automatically filling “…then I took an arrow to the knee.” It’s mnemonic in that way. But why? The reasons are many. The line’s meme potential defies calculation, which is obvious by the longevity and proliferation of same. It’s also very distinct and even when heard in passing remains an earworm as one continues to gallivant around Skyrim. Instantly the phrase recalls fond memories of Whiterun and Stormcloaks and Imperials and endless, endless Draugr. There is also the obvious color that hearing the line again and again undoubtedly adds to the game world. However, in my view, the value of the phrase is none of these, save perhaps a deeper aspect of the latter. What do I mean by this? Well, let’s consider a separate type of depth beyond physical and immediate exploration.

Many, many entertainment experiences–cinematic, literary or of the gaming variety–celebrate the sheer wealth and breadth of the work on offer. Brilliant, unique characters populate fantastic (or decidedly unfantastic) settings and contain endless narrative threads for the enjoyment of the enterprising consumer. The Open-World Game–emphasis intended–was once a novelty, especially on consoles, limited by the processing power of the then-current generation of technology. Each one to drop was an event, a herald of the coming sea-change in gaming. Fable, Spiderman 2, any Elder Scrolls game, and (of course) Ever(crack)quest and World of War(crack)craft. Iconic releases that defined an era in gaming and iconic specifically for the massive sandboxes to explore and manipulate. And there is much indeed to explore and manipulate. The experience feels expansive in each case. One may plunge deep into the content and wheresoever one chooses. Few of these games suffer from the adage “a mile wide and an inch deep”, if any. That’s their claim to fame after all: depth. Indeed, what they’re lacking has little to do with depth or lack thereof, but rather age. Which is the essence of having once been an adventurer until taking an arrow to the knee. Having once been. Until.

What I’m describing is more than a plenitude of spatial distance. Rather, what brings this phrase to the forefront of Skyrim like no other part of Skyrim is its suggestion that there is a before and consequently after to the narrative. That in itself suggests that you, the player, are merely a mote passing along the diode of time. In simpler terms, the guard saying for the umpteenth number of times that he used to be an adventurer like you before taking an arrow to the knee takes the vast three-dimensional world that Bethesda has become so expert at developing and stretches all its manifold components and narratives across a fourth dimension: time.

The implication that there exists a before to your journey in any narrative likewise suggests an after, both together suggesting linear time, and that implication performs an immense amount of labor in creating a living world. Indeed, there is a wide gulf that exists between a living world and an expansive world. An expansive world, if unalive, is simply static. You are the only moving object within the world. In a sense, time does not exist in that world or at least not in a linear sense, for events (and so time) only progress whensoever you choose. Living worlds operate like this too. We have not truly found a way (no marketable way at any rate) to create a persistent world in which the player is literally merely a factor (as opposed to the mere suggestion that they are a factor). Rather it is the dimension of time that helps to bring alive an expansive world, to engender a sense of progression and movement outside and notwithstanding the actions of the player. For there is no way that the player can stop that arrow from sinking into that guard’s knee. There is no way to prevent his hobbling and thus allow for the rise of his adventuring career. The player has no control over this scenario. This derailing of his life persists with or without them.

And of course all of this is to the benefit of the player.

The respect paid to time–as to the cultures, the locales and characters–crosses a threshold for the expansive open world game that would not be crossed otherwise. Ambient time–that is, suggestions of the before and after along a linear path that are come across in the course of things–seeps in around the player like a ghost. Whispers that there was a world here before and will be a world long after. A memento mori, if you will, that the struggle of the player is perhaps not in vain but certainly not singular. This is a staggering concept, with sobering implications. What are we but the shadows of dust thrown against the wall by the light of the fire of life, briefly present and hardly remembered? Who are we; where are we going; do the matters of our lives matter in the scheme of time? The answers to those questions have occupied some of the best minds of our species for millennia and continue to do so.

The great Human Experiment remains incomplete and won’t be solved here. But we continue to explore that concept. And, at its core, this exploration of ambient time poses an existential question that I need not explain. If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably a member of that self-selecting population who finds some twisted enjoyment in picking at the scab of their ennui. Rather the key thing is to understand how easily we might inject a little existential truth into the worlds we build for others to explore and inhabit, how easily we might deliver more than a vast material space filled with a plenitude of static entities.  Indeed, the point is no more or less complex than this: All that sobering truth, that world-shattering and world-deepening, was accomplished with this simple, little line: “I used to be an adventurer like you, then I took an arrow to the knee.”

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