In Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he I think coins the phrase ‘totalitarian kitsch.’ I’m guessing my fascination with the term comes partially because it just sounds like an apt way to describe the bullshit that piles up in our lives, but it also neatly fits the piles of crap that Dead Synchronicity pastelizes in order to represent the obsessive collecting of shtuff that marks late capitalism.
Kundera thinks that the ways that kitsch piles up both as a material phenomenon and as a spiritual weight. In talking about the ways in which the people in one of his characters’ lives tries to get rid of the things in her apartment, he notes that those around her become oppressive reminders of the Soviet puppet regime that rules Czechoslovakia in 1968 because of their interest in what she feels to be the kitschy remnants of her existence:
It was all merely a desperate attempt to escape the kitsch that people wanted to make of her life. (254)
Kitsch has multiple values here – it can seem heavy and cluttered, of course, and the value that people attach to it provides weight that ultimately dooms the attempts at revolution (that, and a few thousand Soviet tanks). But Kundera’s narrator actually attaches value to weight, as he asks early in the novel “is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?” (5), reversing I guess what feels like an artistic privileging of the light. Kundera despises the totalitarian nature of kitsch because of its lightness – it has no foundational use, provides no material benefits, instead trapping people with its lack of density and meaning. Lightness means having no roots, no grounding, and thus offers little value in a revolution that wants to try to recreate Prague as San Francisco, all the while not realizing that the Soviets did not care about the power of the hippie.
Dead Synchronicity toys with that obsession with the totalitarian nature of kitsch. Michael, after all, is a photographer, someone who worked as a photojournalist and ended up paying for his work by being knocked unconscious for a month. The refugee camp that he wakes up in I think works as totalitarian kitsch, as the piles of stuff fade into obscurity as pastel backdrops for lives of misery and squalor that are gradually being sucked into whatever is happening that is causing the synchronicity to absorb their world.
Michael calls the camp a cemetery, and a very specific one at that, and the border connoted by cemeteries – the heaviness of the body replaced by the lightness of the spirit – offers the player a place of ambiguity, a liminal space, that is immediately recognizable. Some of the damage clearly comes directly from some sort of intra-camp conflict – there is a bullet hole in a car window at the forefront of the shot – but most begs all kinds of questions: why is all this stuff piled here? Did this place used to be a junkyard? If so, how could the owner have sold anything from these piles? Was it a garbage dump? Again, if so it seems to have specific clear spaces that function like meadows or forest homes, seemingly intentionally carved out as if the residents of the camp are actually early European settlers of North America. Like kitsch, the shapes are recognizable, but the functions are not, unless they are merely to hold memories of what this culture used to be. And true to Kundera’s experience with totalitarianism, the will to action has been drained in a long slow attempt to simply survive. The only characters with agency are one who has been in a coma for a long time, and, as we finally discover, his former editor.
I think that this desire for weight also works ludically. Point and click games train us differently than do other games that encouraged us to click on everything. I remember playing Half-Life for the first time and being convinced that everything in the game was clickable, and that there were rewards for finding not only loot but also easter eggs or any other sort of tricks the game developers had put out there for me.
In point-and-click games we are directed very specifically where to click. Upon clicking, we are given either story elements or contextual backdrop – no easter eggs, no Big Fucking Gun. Some of the things we pick up will have later uses, but the puzzles (as I have written elsewhere) are not exactly difficult to solve. There are not even consequences for making the wrong choice, unlike in many games. At least in the point-and-click games that I cover, the only consequence is being unable to move forward in the game.