I’m reading Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things , and it contains all kinds of nuggets of delicious intellectual goodness. He’s particularly adept at identifying binaries, and this one made me think of the games I’ve been looking at lately…
In particular, this thought (in an essay discussing the work of photographer David French) made me think of Dead Synchronicity:
The cumulative effect of these (French’s) images…is of how rich the substance of human experience is, and how reliably it is to be found side by side with an inevitable insubstantiality” (170)
Dead Synchronicity finds nostalgia and longing in this ‘side by side’ existence, I think. The scene below takes place in the refugee camp, as the protagonist, Michael, tries to get information from the young woman who is being held as a prostitute in the van behind him. Michael’s narrative aside makes clear the developer’s take on the camp, placing it carefully as a seldom-visited memorial to our cultural fascination with collecting junk. That junk, then, equates to Cole’s “rich substance of human experience,” juxtaposed with the “insubstantiality” brought on by the subsequent plot, in which the girl gets revenge on her pimps by shooting them.
Despite Michael’s observation, though, this scene feels melancholy and lonely; we are not being judged for creating this cemetary, but are instead simply asked to contemplate how this all came about. After the deaths of the pimps, the player needs to take Michael back in time, to just before this moment, and the reliving of that scene – with a crucial addition that we as players could not have anticipated before it happens – turns a sordid moment of revenge and despair into a time for action that equates to our ability to see the original flaw that caused the dead synchronicity in the first place.
The player doesn’t take that time travel trip in order to prevent their deaths – the game, I think, sees this revenge as necessary and liberating for the young woman, in that same dreamy, amnesiac way that the rest of the narrative unfolds as we leave her in a catatonic state that Michael tells us is where she wants to be. What we have to do instead is to seize a moment in time to protect the generator (below the water tank) from getting damaged by the bullet after it passes through one of the men. The rich substance of human experience – not so rich if we think morally – loses its potential to continue if Michael does not protect the generator, which will be used to recharge a laptop that will then give Michael and his former boss at a newspaper the clues to perhaps enable them to correct the initial actions that have prompted this gradual (but speeding up) degradation. Preventing the generator from getting wet is the only moment that feels rushed in the entire game – I missed it the first time and had to replay – and that rushed moment felt familiar to me, a time that I should have acted and didn’t realize that need until it had passed.
Jumbles of Pastels – and this ain’t Matisse
The insubstantiality that Cole locates on one binary is clear in the roughly sketched in background of objects heaped as far as we can tell to the sky. Each of these objects in and of itself could be a proud text of the industrial age, one that has inscribed upon it a long history of capitalist material success and technological prowess. The jumbled mess, with each object indistinguishable from its comrades in this graveyard, says otherwise – all of this can easily go away (and in fact will, as the game shows us through the moments in which Michael experiences the deadly synchronicity triggered by human actions).
The color scheme, though, speaks to what feels like empathy towards these remnants (and their makers). The light pastels are easy on the eyes, and the internal lighting (this scene seems to be lit by what appears to be a gradually fading sun, at the end of what feels like an endless day in the game’s world) softens even further these lines. The blend invokes in my head not a zombie apocalypse – with the dusty effects of paper blowing across a scene with grey lumps of corpses, and broken storefronts with warnings from survivors spray-painted across them – but a general decay, one that argues that humans – with their rich experiences – were once rulers here, and that ended badly, but whoever is reading this scene from their omniscient perspective should feel for us in all of our flaws. The game keeps this attitude in the wry humor of survivors, the desperation that drips from all sorts of folks, the petty and thuggish violence that still marks those in authority even as they realize their own limitations. This empathy even extends to Michael’s portrayal – he looks like a starvation victim, unlike the petty mafia that runs the camp.
I wonder if the developers of Dead Synchronicity will allow it to finish in this way. We are not going to survive this event, I am guessing, despite Michael’s attempts at heroism, and I think that the developers may find that to be okay. If there are multiple endings then they perhaps have fully embraced Cole’s binary, and indeed have placed both elements side by side.
I guess that ultimately the frustration with this dialectical approach is its inability to offer concrete actions for moving forward. Perhaps the challenge is not that those paths do not exist but that instead we have to figure them out for ourselves. That takes work, and energy, and an optimism that late capitalism often seems to actively discourage.