The Illusion of Unlife: An Animation Ghost Story

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It is often said that the (western) concept of animation is captured in the Illusion of Life. The illusion, that is, of moving drawings as living beings.

In simple terms, the Illusion of Life posits that, through a technical understanding of physical and psychological reality, an animator might spark the semblance of a subject (character) within an object (drawing). By animating a form such that, in spite of its abstract and stylized nature, it is possessed of a recognizably human reality – becoming a “real boy”, as Pinocchio has it – the animator creates an indelible impression of life.

We might say that this concept of animation is the representation, or imagination, of a living human form, or conversely a human form of life, by means of moving drawings.

For Disney, the Illusion of Life was at once the end of animation as a craft and the condition of animation as an art. Only by enlivening the human element of moving drawings, creating real characters, real pathos, and real stories could animation hope to touch the hearts and minds of human beings.

And, in truth, Disney was not wrong. Indeed, if the history of international animation reveals anything, it is a base-level inability of the medium to tell stories through technically unrefined character work. Even today, when the sway of American animation has waned and good craft is truly an international practice, the Disney Illusion of Life remains an exception.

Are we to conclude, then, that we occupy the twilight years of animation? No, I think not. On the contrary, my experience is that we are entering a hitherto unseen golden age of international animation. It is true we are no longer within the Disney paradigm, but as always, with the loss of old standards comes the potential for new forms of expression.

To experience something of this potential, let us consider the other side of the story. If there is such a thing as an Illusion of Life, should there not also be an Illusion of Unlife? By this I don’t mean the animation of dead matter, which is commonplace, but the animation of something that is recognizably inhuman. Is there really no character animation that subverts the Disney standard without sacrificing its dramatic integrity?

It is a small question, concerning a small thing, yet it has great implications for the expressive potential, the aesthetic range, and the technical acuity of animation as a form of art.

As we know, the Disney artists never pursued the inhuman. Instead, the they solidified their mastery of craft, articulating the twelve principles of animation as a technical guide and ideological bulwark for the realistic representation of the human form of life.

However, as history would have it, there are others.

Operating at the limit of convention, standing at the avant-garde of the Japanese animation industry, Shingo Yamashita is doubtlessly one of the premier animators of our time. His work, at once subtly executed and overtly experimental, oscillating between sensitive beauty and grotesque dread, provides a powerful vision of the potential of an animated art unbound by the Illusion of Life and its attendant principles.

My realization of this side to his work, along with my impetus for writing the present article, came after I saw the following short sequence.

https://www.sakugabooru.com/post/show/19580

Let me describe what I see in it.

The scene opens to a man foraging within a wooden glade.

Beset at all sides by thick bramble woods, the foreground trees quickly receding into a diffuse mass of black outlines and murky shadows, the man, himself a lineless figure of subtly textured light, stands in stark relief to the surrounding gloom.

The mood, abstract and melancholy, is enlivened by the human figure. Coordinating hand and eye, the subtle minutia of his movements expressing the intense yet mundane dexterity characteristic of seasoned labour, he appears as he is; a coherent form of life, intent on a single purpose.

Before long, however, the spell is broken. A startling sound, or a gastly premonition, demands his attention. As he turns his gaze upwards, the perspective shifts to reveal a figure appearing in the dell. A mute, billowing flame, and within it, a dark, humanoid shape.

The manifestation of this presence colours the scene, turning tenebrous the once tranquil forest. The man, wasting everything but time, takes flight. Under the dread hand of death, he leaves it all. His basket, overturned. His hatchet, held fast.

The true subject of fear is the world itself. As the man stumbles, so does the flow of time; the eternity of the moment is captured in the dilation of movement. Overcome by nothing, the scene fades to white.

Can nothing be outrun? Caught in the midst of things, the man finds himself at one with the path before him; crossing the homeward gate, he envisions the light of the nearby village.

Looking back, he bears witness to the pursuing nightmare. Erratic, irrational, unnatural, it enacts a macabre dance of death. Its arms and legs flailing wildly, the impression of the whole is of something not-whole, a being truly not-of-this-world.

The illegible visage of the enemy is met by its human ditto; the all-too-familiar face of childlike terror. Crying out in agony, shedding tears and composure alike, the man is as pathetic as any human being.

Before long, the forest opens onto a chasm. Light overtakes the scene, hiding the man; this is truly his element. Yet he is not met by safety, but by a narrow, wooden bridge spanning the naked abyss.

Careful not to fall, the the man edges his way across. His pace is laggard yet hurried; escaping danger only by way of danger, his movements are burdened by the complexities of his panicked flight.

Suddenly, the scene changes; an abrupt perturbation darkens the sky, sending quivers across the length of the bridge. The man cannot help but glance towards the shadow.

Too fast. Much too fast. The creature closes in at frantic speed, revealing itself not as a coherent gestalt so much as an unliving image of chaos. Its face, now visible, expresses not one but a multitude of physiognomies; melancholy, mirth, innocence, gloom.

The man has only a moment to take it in. Brandishing his hatchet, he cuts the support.

Alas, choosing death is no escape. As is its nature, the ephemeral spark of life cannot outrun its fate. Caught in the gaze of the dark fire, the light of human vision is blotted out. As the bridge falls, the moment once more elongated, it is already over.

In end, nothing fades to nothing.

What we have here, or at least what I have attempted to bring out in my retelling, is what Disney deemed impossible: An example of a dramatically complete animated story unbound by the principles of animation.

Indeed, Yamashita’s work is worth considering because it manifests a dramatic register that is, as yet, unexplored. Crafting, as he does, a sense of life-unlife utterly alien to the western canon. Enacting a visual horror story with no counterpart outside of the art world. Surely that is a feat worthy of consideration?

Of course, Yamashita’s piece is fundamentally a conceptual. One cannot help but consider it a visual manifestation of ideas, the dramatic content of which is indelibly fused with the form of the aesthetic presentation, e.g. it renders visible the dualism of life and death, light and dark, realism and abstraction. As such, it is far removed the invisible dramaturgy implied in the Illusion of Life.

Yet unlike the independent autodidacts of the art world, Yamashita is a tenured professional. He knows the craft of character animation. Indeed, he is fully capable of working in continuity with the Disney paradigm, and his treatment of the man is a knowing recreation of the sort of life born out of a careful and considered, if limited, adherence to the aforementioned principles.

What is truly striking, however, is the way in which he deliberately eschews those same principles in bringing to “unlife” the demonic spectre. This ghost is in many ways a negative image of Disney’s own process; it is what canon has left undone, the potential of animation unbound by western dogma.

I mention this because I think it is is crucial to realize the non-coincidental yet complementary nature of these approaches to character animation. Yamashita brings together two distinct animation philosophies, and uses them to elevate the whole of his work.

On one hand, there is the considered use of Disney’s principles – archs, overlapping motion, and so on, as well as a general respect for the simplified ideal of newtonian physics – that clearly informs the animation of the man. That character is conceived and presented as a conventional human being, by which I mean recognizable form of life – a living, feeling, thinking being.

By contrast, the ghost is animated so as to enact a direct rejection of those ideals. It is perfectly inhuman – deliberately at odds with the the realistic comportment of the man – yet is that not precisely its role within the story? In being something other than human, an Unknown, the ghost is a perfect instance of dramatically antimated unlife.

Note that is made possible only because Yamashita is not strictly bound to the Illusion of Life. Indeed, where Disney praises continuity, coherence, gravity, and solidity as “good form”, Yamashita celebrates incongruity, incoherence, weightlessness, and ephemerality as a “formless form.” The ghost and man represent the two sides of this duality, over which the contemporary Japanese animator presides.

The contrast in the treatment of the characters is born out not just in the shape of their bodies as they move through space, but also in the rhythmic cadences of their figures as they move through time. Indeed, modulating framerates so as to consistently render the “realistic” man on two twos and the “unrealistic” ghost on ones serves both conceptual and dramatic purposes. Not only does it ensure that the movements of the ghost are perceptibly faster than the movements of the man, but the artistic purpose of these specific framerates are directly opposed to their conventional affordances; twos being used not as a shorthand for abstract movement but to highlight the minutiae of full animation, whereas ones are not intended to achieve a continuity of motion but rather to effect a surreal sense of incongruity. Here, the artist uses the medium to render visible not just life, but a form of unlife completely unlike our own.

The Ghost of Yamashita

Had Disney been correct, Yamashita’s experiment would be empty of dramatic potential. After all, how could one feel for what is unliving? And yet, I feel it by far a more effective use of dramatic horror than anything Disney produced.

It might be that the drama of the situation is principally carried by the man. Perhaps, as Disney says, a human subject is needed for true pathos. But does the ghost not possess its own sense of character? Is it not an emotionally expressive presence? And even if it is not, is not the terror, the man’s and ours alike, only realized through Yamashita’s phantom work?

If I am right, Yamashita’s ghost story is a manifest illustration of the dramatic potential of moving images beyond the Illusion of Life. With it, he shows us that the Disney principles, although sound, ultimately provide just one method of animation. They outline an aesthetic recipe that can and should be critiqued in the pursuit of other means of artistic expression.

Such critique concerns the very nature and purpose of animation. If one is strict, the ghost is not really an “illusion” of unlife – it simply is unliving. As such, just as it does with the notion of “life”, Yamashita’s work puts into question the idea of animation as inherently illusory. Perhaps that notion is the true illusion.

The implications of this statement are simple, yet difficult. It suggests a new way of thinking about animation as a form of art, an horizon beyond which have only glimpsed. That potential can be terrifying, but it is also a cause for wonder.

For good or ill, I believe that dark specter is a form of animation that will not stop haunting us.

Indeed, it seems to me not only undead, but an image of the living future.

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Fragments of Fez

Say, what about writing on Fez?

What about not?

Written, re-written, re-re-written – no matter how long the time or how arduous the effort, the words always come with a sense of ennui, of being absent the word. Whatever I say isn’t what I meant: This isn’t it.

Of course, that’s the secret of it – no writer ever arrives at what they mean. If I make sense of things, it is only an indirect one; writing from the vantage of history’s linguistic remove. And for all the things Fez is, I know my game, writing, is none of them – for the latter is capable only of articulating the difference between things, e.g. the non-identity of a game and “a game”.

So, how to write about Fez? To the extent that it is extant, an absolute thing in itself, it remains ineffable. Only insofar as it is a “game”, that is to say a thing linguistically reflected in and relative to what history makes of it for itself, can it be thematized as an artefact – as part of our shared world. Consequently, to write about Fez, I must write about things other than Fez. If the “it” of which I speak is anything, it isn’t one thing, but everything and nothing. It is world, tradition, discourse – at once text and con-text.

Or, again, my writing about Fez must not be Fez, but precisely what Fez is not – i.e. what I make of Fez. Writing (about) text is writing con-text, writing something. It is to blur the line, to occupy the between – inside and outside, subject and object, the work and the word. As such, to write on Fez is to over-write Fez itself – it is partake in, and to take apart, the not-Fez that defines Fez.

This not is nothing unheard of. “A standard of game design”, “an ur-indie experience”, “a paradigm”, “charming”, “cryptic”, “trite” – all of these things, commonly spoken, are what Fez is not. This is not Fez.

And yet, Fez is nothing but for this – a game, linguistic or otherwise, requires its players. When I write on Fez, I am actually re-writing the history of writing on Fez, or, which is the same, re-writing Fez as it is for itself. But writing on Fez as it is for itself is to re-write Fez in itself – for what the extant thing is can be defined only by what it is not, i.e. the history into which it is written. Though absolute existence remains ineffable, nothing is anything outside language – which is to say, everything exists as something only in virtue of and in relation to what it is said to be, as text within con-text.

So, why Fez? Why write (on) this thing? As ever, the question comes too late. The choice has already been made, the time spent, the history written. Fez, as I know it, simply is a tapestry of words; each phrase a star upon history’s coruscating empyrean.

But what can this writer, later and lesser, say which hasn’t already been said, and said better – either by the game itself, or the tradition of which it is at once an artefact and the architect? What can this ever be but a muddled trace, a faint reverberation echoing through halls long since empty?

History, we say, is the true scene of tragedy; a scripted work, played-out-of-time, preserved for eternity. Fate would have it no other way – I am here, now; I was not there, then. The writer, positioned yonder, cannot write an original critique. Late from the first, the child of untimely time knows only that the moment will not come again.

But then, was there ever an original time? Or was the first word, the very inception of the work, already after, already work-in-progress? So how would the creation speak, how would it critique, except in relation to its negative – that deferred history out of which it emerged?

If writing criticism is writing history, then the work of the critic truly is the work of words. Not because words enable one to articulate the totality of what is, but, on the contrary, because they allow one to speak what is not. The critic, then, sets in relief the thing and the word, seeking creative re-statement of the extant, the untold possibilities of a saying otherwise. Criticism, otherwise put, is dialecics as diacritics – negative sense-making. It is not simply an “objective” determination of what is meant by “it” in itself, but a “subjective” unsaying of what it is for itself – a palimpsestic re-writing of history, an opening-up of new perspectives and spaces, a de-construction of the world.

So, why not Fez? Or rather, why the not of Fez? For isn’t Fez – with its deferred recursions, its temporal ellipses, its turning about of space – best read as a self-reflective re-making of things? Isn’t it a meta-textual dissolution of text and con-text, world and play, digital and material, virtual and real, inside and outside, before and after? In other words, isn’t Fez itself a critical statement? For just as the game is defined by the fact that it is not the thing from which it takes its name, does it not define itself in relation to, and as negation of, the traditional standard of game design – e.g. articulating “indie” as not-Nintendo?

Well, maybe not. As critic, what a thing is not is precisely what I write – though in doing so, I hope to change something about how things are in and for themselves. In this way, I do my part to engage the process of self-reflective criticism – the poetic work of art.

What follows are fragmentary theses, something in the direction of aphorism. Unfinished, errant and itterant, they outline a critical process – the task of writing out the writerly event itself. My intent, as such, is not to speak “fact”, or even to present a coherent argument, but to draw out a series of thoughts, or truths, that I’ve hitherto come upon in un-tying this writerly knot.

What’s in a Name?

“Fez” is a noun, a thing-name. It denotes Fez, the game, but also the thing that defines Fez. In Fez, this thing is the Thing – the ontological copula, the axis upon which the world turns, the telic principle at the heart of God’s design. It is also a Video Game thing, and, as such, a perfect symbol of “indie” displacement.

Pace “Romeo”, “Fez” is part of things – the world-word as formalized content, the name as 3D-triptych. “Fez”, then, as the inside of the inside; metatext qua metaphysics. (Here is a knot of text, intratext, paratext – introspection and the self-reflective folding of the self.)

As the “journey” of Fez is the journey into “Fez”, so the border between play and “real life” is challenged –  overt escapism acting as a deliberate subversion of the call to adventure, introspection exposing the ideology of “immersion”.

From “Game” and “Fez” comes “Gomez”, the one wearing the titular Thing. Though ostensibly autonomous, the buoyant little man is ultimately a function of the thing he was made to wear.

Much like his name, the Thing is not of Gomez, but adorns the player-avatar, granting ability, purpose, agency. Through him, the player shares in its power. “Earn the Thing and Win the World.”

The language of Fez, in every sense a living crypt, posits that the Thing is Everything. As the fez is both polygon and pixel (“Trixel”), an object within the world and the frame of the world, form and content, so “Fez” is literally ontology – the word of being.

Just as the Thing is the keeper of space, so it is an image of time – the unchanging form of change. God’s visage is a red pixel, the “auto save mechanism” at a revolutionary standstill. By the grace of the Thing are things kept – Gomez, alive; you, playing; the world, in place. At present there will be no exit.

On the other hand, Breaking the Order of Things as a Breaking of the Present – the anti-teleology of the Glitch-reboot as de-struction, shutdown, transgression. What does it take to exit the illusion of the lusory? And what life dwells amid the ruins?

All the Little Things

If the Thing is the form of things, it is because it is every thing and no thing, neither and both. Pixel, cube, hypercube; color, surface, room; frame, window, portal – each thing a unit of the same elemental stuff, each a measure of qualitative difference. Like the monad, everything in Fez reflects the One Thing.

Still, isn’t it funny how insignificant a thing it is? Here is this Thing, this naked artefact, this fez. Fallen from the head of things, its final resting place is equal parts comedic, precarious and contingent. As a thing it is barely anything – a pure ludomechanical representation, signifying nothing but the core lusory conceit.

This paradox is the double nature of lusory things. The fez is at once a red pixel-point and a world-window, simultaneously the Thing and a mere thing. Everything comes to this thing, but what of it? What does it matter, this non-matter? What of this illusion of the lusory? Illusory thing, illusory utility, illusory “value”, illusory meaning, illusory truth. After all, it’s “just a game”.

A Place Further Than the Past

So, why this game, this name, this thing? As metaphor, the fez affords no obvious ludomechanical effect. Though symbolically tied to an actionable verb (“change your perspective”), the object itself remains functionally inert. This dysfunctional function is the heart of the lusory, the cosmic cosmetic presiding passively on top of the game’s only active agent. Ultimately, the One Thing could be replaced by anything.

Why, then, is there Fez? Why this grand, empty signifier – this accidental thing-on-top? The answer inheres not only in what the game is in itself, but derives from what it is for itself – i.e. the self-conscious criticality that speaks to its historical situation.

Question: Why is Fez a game about things, about platforming and puzzle-solving, about a little man in red headwear? Answer: Because Fez is not a Nintendo game.

More precisely, Fez’s Thing is the non-cap of not-Mario. Fez is Fez because the fez is a play on the most emblematic piece of iconography in the history of the medium. Like the poster in Gomez’s room, the titular thing operates diacritically – signifying alienation from belonging, transgression within limits, de-construction of history. Its sense is nothing but a negative function, the very image of indie displacement.

If, per Fez, Nintendo is the standard of “games”, the indie “not” is, in fact, a double-negative – a not-not. Fez is not a Nintendo game, yet Fez is not a not-game. Ergo, Fez is not not a game – or, which is the same, Fez is a Nintendo game without “Nintendo”.

As symbolized by the titular thing – the One Thing that is every-thing yet no-thing, that enables you to stay still yet “change your perspective” – Fez is an inside-out critique of the order of things. Merely touching the fez is taboo – the forbidden fruit as consummation of the cosmos, anti-Mario donning the no-thing.

Just as a not has meaning only in relation to an is, so a self-defined Other is by definition antithetical. Though a game about the virtual and material potentialities of the medium, about “games” outgrowing what they were, Fez remains double-bound to its pre-history, paradoxically seeking a deferred transcendence.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the literal and figurative de-construction of the primordial Hexahedron – a direct analogue to Mario’s block; at once the stuff of the world and a destructible nugget of “interactivity”.

Breaking the Form of Things breaks Fez. As craft, the game is reflective of not only of itself, that schematic totality we refer to as “the work of art”, but also the tradition of which it is but an aspect – the game as “game”.

De-constructing the form of the game means destroying the integrity of the lusory illusion. As video game functionalism is revealed through the eschatology of malfunction – the glitch, the failure, the boot – so this is the truth of the game, its truth as game. Afterwards follows the re-boot, the nascence of a new way of play. “Break the Thing and Re-make the World.”

From this stems a tradition of self-conscious anti-traditionalism, a critique of formal sameness in the form of the same. As the original is defined by its negative, it’s being not-Nintendo, so “indie” articulates the paradox of the derivative ur.

This contradiction speaks to the Uroboric form of cultural dialectics – the eternal anthropophagy of creation and criticism. Beginning at the end, the extremes coterminous yet incommensurate, “indie” remains what it must be – a stumble, a limit, a curio, a crisis, an inflection point in the history of the medium.

As with others of its ilk – Braid, Inside, Undertale, etc. – Fez is able to interrogate the dominant paradigm precisely because it occupies this ambiguity. To play a game that both is and is not a traditional game, that plays on its status as “game” – e.g. using systems to criticise systems – is to be confronted not only with the game as such, but the possibility of playing such a game.

This paradox is the at once the model and the crisis of “indie”, the magic of which is equally that of rupture and revelation, i.e. the trauma of an experience at once familiar and strange, an exposure to truths other than the same. On top and at bottom, inside of the outside, outside on the inside – the “indie” ethos ever hides a furtive critique.

“Change your perspective”

Playing Fez, one recognizes the idea of “changing perspective” as a critical operator – at once mechanic, theme, and intent. Disclosing the hidden depth of the flat canvas, the 2D realm rendered from a 3D vantage, here is a work of art doing the work of art – historical critique as an opening-up of space, a dialectical play of non-identities.

So situated within the chiasm of times and spaces, in the intersection of linear 2D and revolutionary 3D, the “object” of Fez is perfectly subjective – cut out of an existential horizon, every truth relative to the limits of a single perspective. On the other hand, made present as a series of determinate views, the non-identies of the world are made one through truly in-finite synthesis – the Whole given not in space, but in time.

As criticism, the radical nature of Fez is such that by disrupting the conventional contiguity of time and space, and so warping the order of things in perspectival reality, the game presents new ways of play as instances of conventional “rule breaking”, e.g. the closing of an open chasm, the elimination of “impossible” leaps, “meaning” made from detritus. This not only illustrates but instantiates the creative power of critical work. If “indie” has a future, it is in the space of this organic rupture.

As retrospection, the limits of Fez’s perspective are the limits of tradition. As each room is rendered unidirectionally, the non-visible world is, if not erased, then at least muted – a shadow of the extant, knowing neither backside nor inside.

As prospection, Fez is a tear in tradition’s canvas. Folding the form of the past upon the “unthinkable”, the space of Fez is not single, but double. One linear, the other revolutionary; each an open-wound trauma – the fractal, fractured. Such is the terminus of tradition: “Space can only fold so many times before it rips.”

The Art of the Display

When pixel art is rightly celebrated, it is not as mere “retro” aesthetic, but as ontology proper. If there is an artistic legitimacy to the technique, it lies in the fact that it is unabashedly of the medium – as brushwork is of oil painting.

As digital games are displayed by means of a luminescent grid, so the precious granules of the craft display the unnatural nature of that mediality. Neither more nor less abstract than any other form of art, it shows that which high-fidelity games render invisible – the distorted truth of what passes for “realistic” and “immersive” graphics.

A collage of color-quanta, every thing in Fez is made in the image of the Thing – the Trixel as polygon-pixel, as both and neither. With lines used to render 3D depth within a 2D field, the game not only blurs the border between past and present, but also those between “aesthetics” and “mechanics”.

Though not every thing in Fez is a pixel, Fez-things are never not-pixels. This is the art of pixel art, the verisimilitude of which lies precisely in its flagrant anti-mimeticism – an artform making content of its own form.

In this way, Fez wears the depth of its legacy on its its skin. As as the structure of the Thing is visible in every thing, so the pixel, the platform, the puzzle act as historic operators – self-reflective renderings of the stuff of tradition.

Where games culture at large treats “aesthetics” as an empty container, a surface-veneer hiding a matrix of substantial “rules”, “mechanics” and “entities”, Fez structures the topography entirely through its art. Acting as a unity of technique and poetry, craft and creativity, history and design, the game eschews “illusory” aesthetics by making truth of its display – representing nothing, it presents itself as the art of artifice.

At the Limit

The great irony of Fez is expressed by its two-folded frame; the inner and the outer. As a game occupied by games, an object of art making an object of art, Fez presents itself as an abyss of sense. Just what is symbolized by this empty signifier but thing itself, the void at the heart of traditionally (il)lusory things?

As the game brings itself to a close – an odyssey ending at home, the background, as ever, a link to the past – Fez escapes the curse of nostalgic nihilism only by way of the exit.

Concretely, the game rejects the magic of lusory exceptionalism by putting the lie to the ideological notion of games as self-contained things. When it subverts tradition, it is not by merely extending space, opening up new pockets of stuff, but by breaking down the boundary separating lusory and non-lusory places – i.e. history, community, matter, reality. As is the nature of “indie”, the game is limited because it acts at and on the limit, at the inner-outer divide of the medium.

Playing not to the end, but beyond – re-playing, meta-playing, anti-playing – Fez eventually places the player before the ostensibly incomprehensible. Anti-cubes housed within historic ruins, columns, writings provide puzzles of a different order, the depth of which asks you to look past the merely spatial order of things. When Fez asks the player to step outside the block-pushing bounds of tradition, it suggests ways of sense-making at once more esoteric, more powerful and more universal than any form of lusory “accessibility”. What of this silent language, with its artefacts, its keys, its alphabet? What does it say?

The answer does not lie inside Fez – neither with the in-game Rosetta Stone, nor within games in general. In the end nothing comes of these historical relics, these symbols, these “games”, but the Pyrrhic victory of undoing. Solve the puzzle and it comes to nothing, the “mysteries” of the world reduced to a string of input-commands. As the “relic” exits, the de-cryption leaves but an empty crypt. In the end, the vacant world of play is just that – a container for empty skulls.

In reality, Fez’s language, the crypto, places the game in relation to, and communication with, the outside world – speaking of, and to, things other the game. To answer Fez’s question, one must recognize its language as a real-world cipher, the story of which makes sense only in relation to what the game itself is not. The significance of Rosetta Stone, including the story of the Fox, is not simply that it provides a diegetic key to a fictional language, but rather that it is a puzzle solved only by way of external means, i.e. the transcendent, communal knowledge of real-world history.

Playing Fez, “solving” the puzzle, means transgressing its limits; not through a ceasure of play, as in so many other self-critical games, but through its extension. To truly play Fez, i.e. to engage with the text beyond a surface level, is to rely on, and come to be, paratext. It is to call upon externally actualized, non-digital means – to use and manipulate the “frame” of the computer (the monitor, the OS), to construct keys and ciphers, to re-purpose the phone and the pen, to build communities and languages, to practice learning and knowing.

Fez asks of the player that they turn creator-critic. The real task is not simply to solve the long entombed riddle of absent designer-god, but to construct a real-world relic. The game appears now as something beyond is itself; not simply a system of things, but a making of systemic things. With this, I too assume the role of Designer – mine is the Other Hand of God.

It is no coincidence that the game’s ultimate secrets, including the Black Monolith, could only be solved collectively. A game so dedicated to the growth and evolution of games, made in the Age of the Internet, built through, and on, the realities of global informatics, cybertechnologies and “enthusiast” problem-solving, could hardly eschew the means that inspired its creation.

To wit, Fez isn’t simply a game that pulls back the curtain (though it does), but rather a game where the very act of playing subverts the notion of a magic circle. At every level the game extends beyond itself; in playing-out a yonder the screen, it bleeds into the world to which it belongs, blurring the border between inside and outside, intra-text and inter-text. Not only is the truth of the “illusion” made evident at the very inception of the would-be “adventure”, but the act of playing is itself transgressive, engendering a mode of productivity that actively destroys border between “the game” and “real life.”

Yonder the End of Things

As tradition dictates, the inner design of Fez is ultimately final – a closed system. In the end every cube can be collected, every secret excavated, every mystery solved. The hand  of the designer informs everything, and everything – from the graphic presentation, to the structure of the space, to the blunt, clockwork mechanicism of the puzzles – is reflective of it.

Yet Fez is also a game about the unsolved, the unfinished, the unmade. Though the quest for the anti-cubes require re-play, meta-play, in the end it leaves you only with your life. As the sequel failed to materialize, so nothing is guaranteed in life.

Fez’s ultimate truth, then, is the end of play. Whether the world distorts into a blurred mess of pixelated detritus or dissolves into the undifferentiated confluence of the cosmic canopy, whether it enters into the discordant substance of the digital realm or retracts unto the empty void of the barren monitor, the final result is the same. The secret to Fez’s endings lies in recognizing their differential identities, as but two sides of the same multi-dimensional reality; digital and material, microcosm and macrocosm, game and history piercing one another in the course of lived experience.

What is the truth of the lusory world? Only a Dot. “Exit the Thing and Awaken to the World.”

Circle

In the final, it turns out this both is and is not Fez – is and is not what I meant to write. Written, re-written, re-re-written – did I ever exit? As with every game, playing Fez means learning to play. But in breaking down the “closed” system of the thing called “Fez”, Fez opens itself to the game of my life – to that endless cycle of creation and critique we call “writing”.

What I have written here is the critical legacy of Fez as I see it, the trace of a lived experience – a life-lesson. It is not Fez, but it is what I made of it.

Now, make of it what you will.

Fragments on the Odyssey of (Il)lusory Dreams

A flash of light, and darkness ruptures into world.

Lateral lines fulgurate, cleaving sea and sea and sea and sky and sky and sky. Aspects emerge in the vertical and the horizonal, clouds and waves and light and dark and pain and longing in chaotic confluence.

Adrift, a figure perseveres. Struggling against the whorl of elemental discord, he endures. A face, even now, seen seeing.

Light ends the world, and darkness returns to itself.

***

What is an odyssey, but a remembrance of things past?

Upon his arrival at Ithaca, Odysseus finds a world that is neither the time he left nor the place he sought. In the course of things, both the seafarer and his island home have gone missing – one a dream lost in time, the other a dreamer lost in space. Setting out from the end, to the beginning; ultimately, he finds precisely what is irrecuperable – a world of reminiscence, lingering as a ghost of the present.

When Link arrives, with me, at Koholint, we find a world somehow outside time. A world where each day promises new adventures, yet nothing ever truly changes. Unlike Ithaca, Koholint is precisely what we never knew, but always longed for. It is a haven, an escapist fantasy, a magic circle.

When I arrive, with Link, at the end of Koholint, the true odyssey remains. Together, we return to the “real world”, the material realm within which we make our homes, our lives and our dreams. Koholint now become our Ithaca, we treasure the memory of our loss.

awayfarer

***

At the edge of the oneiric garden, before the ocean of oblivion, there is that which cannot be lost. Though the island is gone, the game ended, it lingers – a shard of time, vivid in its luminosity.

As a memory, it represent but a brief respite – a spectral image of what was. And yet, as such, it remains. At once ephemeral and eternal, private and public, quiet and telling, it seems to me a precious, singular thing.

When I think on it, I am struck by the richness of its simplicity. There are trees, and sand, and the horizonal line where blue meets blue. There are voices, warmth, seagull’s shrieks – the song of the world, an imaginary ambience of smells, sounds and sensibilities.

And, yes, there are the two who cannot but be there. On the one hand the boy, who might once have been me, and on the other the girl, who is not whom she used to be. Sharing a moment, their moment, they stay as they were – there, with us.

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Between them are words, though I don’t remember their exact measure. Only the sense stays. First, the question – a confession, equal parts demure, plaintive, anxious. Then, the answer – a bare lie. Between them, too, is the unspoken; one glances at the other, and the other gazes away. A moment at once quiet and telling, indeed.

When Marin notices Link’s reverie, his reminiscence of home, she tells him she knows he will one day leave. In her view, Link’s arrival is momentous because it suggests the possibility of a departure. He, the outsider, is a herald and a harbinger, an agent of literal unrest. She, the insider who dreams of worlds beyond the present, of a life different from her own, sees in him a way away.

And yet, it is her he comes to leave. For when Link awakens, it is to Marin. From the first, she, through her voice and image, calls to him as what she really is – the living memory of Zelda. She isn’t her, yet, as with Koholint itself, her relation to Link is defined by what she is not. With her, with the errant symbol of home, begins the way of waking; hers is the song to end the world.

The why of it, they both know. It is the path ordained, yes, but it is also a will. When Marin asks about the “outside”, when she confesses her hopes and fears for the future, she isn’t simply concerned with the existence of a greater world, but what it means to live beyond the horizon of the present. Life on Koholint, she realizes, is profoundly still – an imaginary ideal, arresting an eternal present. It is precisely from this that they both seek escape.

“Link, some day you will leave this island… I just know it in my heart… Don’t ever forget me… If you do, I’ll never forgive you!” Their moment spent, Marin asks Link not to forget. She asks for his sake, because she cares for him, but more so for her own – because hers is a will unto itself. Thinking herself unable to escape the dream, for Link to keep some small part of her, a remainder and a reminder, is what it means for her to have a life beyond the present.

***

For Link, the promise of Koholint is that it is and is not Hyrule. There is everything he knew, yet nothing is the same. There is darkness and light, adventure and home, what he left for and what he returns to. It is that haven, that escapist fantasy, that place of rest and arrest.

On Koholint, adventure awaits. There are the nightmares – archetypes of a symbological order, Jungian shadows of subconscious realms, ghosts wearing the faces of history. They are forces dwelling at the heart of the world, intent on keeping safe the order of things.

On Koholint, there is home. A domestic village, a perfectly bucolic way of life, the company of others. Safe, still, stunted – ever quotidian, life on the island has its course. There, every day brings the sun anew, yet the shadow of the egg lingers eternal.

On Koholint, there are two sides to things. On the one, the pleasures of tribulation. On the other, the stasis of safety. When Link leaves, it is in view of this duality. For, as befits a hero, he seeks the end of things. At the close of the adventure, he abandons home. Finding himself only in setting out, giving up the world to gain the world, his is road is marked by profound solitude – he cannot remain there, at home, and remain what he is, a hero. He seeks the unknown, and that means awayfaring.

***

children

In Mabe Village, Link encounters a pair of children. At first, they appear to be simple figures of childhood innocence, spending their days leisurely playing games. Soon, however, their routine takes on a wistful, even tragic dimension. As Link ventures out to decrypt the secrets of Koholint, braving the unknown and the forbidden, they remain. From the first to the last, they do nothing but play. Ever the same, devoid of a past and a future of their own making, they appear as what they effectively are – little more than automatons staging a pre-planned performance.

The children themselves comment on this, stating that Link is strange precisely because he is a stranger. Like Marin, they question him about the “outside”, but unlike her they cannot imagine the possibility of it. For them, there is nothing beyond the present, the island-as-it-is.

Yet the “present” of Koholint is not limited to the merely extant. Koholint at present simply is the order of the dream. For this reason, the world is acutely ahistorical. As the children do not know their origins, so the world does not know the meaning of time. Though the island hides many ruins, they are all either relics of Link’s past, literal ghost houses, or monuments dedicated to their own irreality.

At one point, the father of the children quips: “I’ll be lost in the hills later, so keep a look out for me, hear?” More than a witticism, these words lay bare the uncanny anachrony of the play-world. Koholint is a world where nothing changes, where now is always, if only because every event is pre-written. As text, a work of authorial intent, it is truly a time out of joint – a still-life adventure.

It is in this an-archeology that the lusory and the illusory dimensions of Koholint are thematized. As a play-world, a game in every sense, the adventure constitutes a line, a link, running between player and playmaker. The children, locked in perpetual play, stand at a deliberate parallel not only to the hero, but also to me. Somehow attuned to the limits of the magic circle, these intralusory players offer up metatextual commentary: “Hey, man! When you want to save just push all the Buttons at once! Uhh… Don’t ask me what that means, I’m just a kid!”

This artifice is, in a sense, the very image of the dream. The option of “saving the game”, an affordance offered by the god-designer, and spoken by his children, marks the possibility of an eternal return – of retaining a still image, or unliving memory, of how things were. This is the Koholint of in-finity, the “design” of which outlines a telic order; from beginning to end, it remains what it is.

***

island

We are often beset by the notion of lusory exceptionalism. “This is it”, they say, and as players our answer is in the affirmative. When we enter the empyrean realm, we do so by contract, knowing we are given only this: A still-life moment outside time, an infinite play-world hither the magic circle.

With Link’s Awakening, we encounter the orthogonal to this narrative. A game about the illusory of the lusory, about the art of imagination, about experience, memory and dream, it enacts a de-construction on the divide between play and “life”.

Operating, through the metaphor of the island dream, on the concept of games as somehow distinct from the ordinary course of things, it displaces the received place of games in human life. If they are nothing but this – unreal, inconsequential, insignificant – then why do waste our time playing?

Set before the extreme, at the very limit of the lusory realm, the indelible meeting of Link and Marin makes palpable this conceit. To paraphrase: Is there no outside to this inside? Or is this closed system – this ideal sphere, this set of rules, this machine-code engine – all there is to the world of play?

***

When Link ascends the final, completing the path ordained, he faces the god-designer. Speaking through the gallery of plenty – Demiurge as Fish as Owl. Text as World as Island. Dream as Illusion as Memory – the creator tells the simple, terrible truth: “VERILY, IT BE THE NATURE OF DREAMS TO END!”

Games, hallowed sites of “fun”, are no different from any other facet of life. As they “entertain”, so they traumatize. They are places of pain, loss and tragedy. They are part of life, and like life, it is in their nature to end. In this lies their meaning as well as their horror.

Written in view of this reality, Link’s Awakening confronts us with the freedom of the end. Just as the sorrow and the hope of Koholint lies in awakening to the truth of the dream, the finitude that is its existence, so the way away, ending the spell of the world, is itself part of the text. Ultimately, though the game offers its save-states, there is no saving the dream.

Which is not to say that the dream-game comes to nothing. Games, for all that they are, are not insignificant. On the contrary, the address from playmaker to player is at once illustrative and constitutive of the vital essence of the work. As places of play, games are experienced and, in time, remembered – and that means re-lived.

wft

When I think on the legacy of Yoshiaki Koizumi, I feel it is encapsulated in this moment: A singular director, utterly peerless amongst Nintendo’s writers, articulating the nature of our (il)lusory condition. Let my own writing attests to the difference the work of a playmaker makes in the course of a player’s life!

In truth, the ideological illusion is that games are inherently illusory – or, put differently, that the illusion of the lusory is not itself truth. As if the real, life and work, and the imaginary, dream and memory, were not equal parts of the human experience – a chiasm of mind and matter. Or, to again call upon the words of divine providence, spoken in the voice of the creator himself: “SOMEDAY, THOU MAY RECALL THIS ISLAND… THAT MEMORY MUST BE THE REAL DREAM WORLD…” (Even post mortem, the author makes a home of living memory – if only because his name is part of the text.)

***

I’ve said it begins with a storm, but doesn’t it really begin with a racoon, a pup, a frog prince, a banana…? These fragmentary reminiscences, each an anachronism, each a pyre, each a new beginning, are what remain with me of the world of dreams; imagistic fractals, they linger as what they are – the pictures not taken during the course of the adventure. In this way, the dream-game, as imagined by the creators, transcends itself in the imagination of players.

In the gallery of Koholint, three items stand the test of time. First, the island as defined by its boundaries; that which is is definite because finite. Second, the empty vessel that crowns the world; an egg that hatches a new sun. Third, the angel that exits the dream; life reborn from the wreck.

gull

At the opening of the close, when island dissolves into sea, nothing comes to nothing. Koholint is gone, yet the miracle of it remains. Only in waking does the singer of the Siren’s song – the one who was never her own, whose wish was born of and through the dream of the end to the end of the dream –  come to be her own. This symbolic re-incarnation, this life beyond life – existence as reminiscence, as ghost, as gull – is the apotheosis of the lusory and the truth of the illusory. Like the transformation of dream into memory, the winged one makes an existence of the exit. Her voice, to my mind’s ear, now and forever a seagull’s shriek – a song carried by sea and wind.

***

Hither the end, the world of dreams remains only in the form of what it is not; an image given wings, born aloft by rosen winds.

Lost to me and to Link, to all us who have partaken in the adventure, who have crossed our own oceans and our own islands, it remains as it must be; a living memory.

Following the way of waking, the ocean-road to the not-there of what was, I find myself here; writing this journal. We, who share in the odyssey of life, know the meaning of this constitutive absence. History, as Odysseus teaches, is that to which one can return only when it is gone.

Historic, then, is the legacy of evanescent Koholint. Once a world for me to inhabit, forever a world to inhabit me.

Such is the place of the (il)lusory art.

***

As the story enters, so it leaves – with me and Link, adrift on the ocean that is our life-world.

On high looms the silhouette of the creator, a passing shadow disclosing a new sun and an open horizon, the world of infinite seas.

Below, bearing the twin burden of joy and sorrow, the wayfarer bides and abides. His face, even now, seen seeing.

Light returns to dark, and life goes on.

Running Sisyphus

The other day, I set out playing Super Mario Run.

Wayfaring, with Mario, on the road of life. Playing his game, in part, to write about it.

Certainly, there is an irony to this. The way he sets out is remarkably effortless; getting off to a running start – no indecision, no regrets, no going back. Running till the end, be it in death’s or love’s embrace, only to set out anew. Unconquered by his Sisyphean task, he lives the eternal recurrence.

With me, it’s different. Setting out is difficult; it takes time, effort, a will and a way. Writing is a struggle because it is an exposure; it reveals the finitude that is my own – the limits of my ability, my character, my resolve. Months in the making, in the end I stand with my words – in the far distance.

But who am I to compare myself with Mario? Super Mario. Mario, the hero. Mario, the legend. Mario, the corporate-manufactured everyman. A man, it seems, rather unlike me – and, no doubt, unlike others unlike me alike. Everyone different, no one quite like Mario.

And yet I play his game. Setting out, together, in a communion of opposites. Setting out, as one, on paths unknown.

***

“Woo-hoo! Let’s-a go!”

Perhaps the key to understanding the disjunctive parallel running between Mario and me, and indeed the end of running as such, lies in the iconic phrase Mario utters at the very first.

I open with these words not simply because they are Mario’s opening words, nor on the dictate that, as a writer, words are the limit of my purview, but because this almost-wordless signature, though utterly inane in its codified state, serves as a formal indication concerning the nature of our communion.

It is telling that when Mario speaks, he adresses. In commanding the first word, he commands. Mario is telling you to accompany him – to share in his adventure. You, the player – the divine agency “behind” the avatar, the “unmoved mover” whose hand is nominally and literally in control – will be his follower.

In this way, Mario establishes a distance between his own self and you, his other half and would-be “God”. Only Mario, by his own words, makes possible the playing of “my game”. Only by his leave may you share in the run.

***

In Super Mario Run, running is not an option. It is rather an existential – a way or modality of being. Mario simply is running. He takes off, and doesn’t stop.

In this we find an unfreedom – but it does not belong to Mario. Mario himself is free to run, and exercises that freedom. The one who is unfree, bound by and to Mario’s way, is you. Unlike titles of yore, Super Mario Run really is a game about following Mario’s lead.

Otherwise said, Super Mario Run explicitly posits Mario as the enactor of the game’s titular act. You, the player, do not run. You play a game where Mario is running. Ergo, you are neither Mario nor his “master”. Not simply in the sense that no avatar is ever truly identical with, or subject to, the will of the player, but rather; this is Mario – himself – running. Mario the individual, Mario the agent, Mario the man.

To be sure, Mario has always known to articulate the primacy of his own self. As before, his most iconic phrase, “It’s-a me, Mario!”, tells truth. It is he, not you, who is the star of his story. But in positing Mario as the one who is in every sense the game’s runner, Super Mario Run sets in stark relief the difference between the leading figure and his follower.

***

Mario’s role as the runner might appear to be a matter of little consequence, yet this structural conceit does in fact inscribe the lusory experience with a sense of genuine incongruity in that it confronts the player with a form of absolute dependence; a powerlessness in the face of true alterity – the will of the one we call “Mario”.

In a radical subversion of the putative player-avatar relation, Mario the runner appears not as an immediate synecdoche of “me” but as radically Other. An avatar whose resolve, in play, is both prior and superior to that of the player. For what might be the first time, his body is not principally a vehicle of player-agency, but a site of force and resistance. His carnal being, commonly reduced to a set of ludomechanical affordances, like him having a certain maximum velocity, or presented as audiovisual embellishment, like him falling asleep without player input, is now the very heart of the game.

As a philosophical aside, I am well aware that this raises questions as to what it means to play “as” someone – to act and enact on and through the body of another. One could easily push this, as Brendan Keogh has done, in the direction of an explicit phenomenology of the body.

Certainly, there is a somatic confluence at play in every game; a chiasmic circuit of machine and human, avatar and player, digital and material. From an interstitial perspective, the world is many-folded oneness, a play of differences, as the body of the avatar and the body of the player run through one-another.

On this view, it stands to reason that one would speak of the avatar not as a mere extension of the player’s body – since that would retaina traditional subject-object dichotomy – but the game itself as an intermingling of being both “real” and “virtual” – the flesh of game-play.

Of course, there is a great deal more to be said about the possibilities of the virtual body, and of games as sites of cybersynesthetic perception and self-reflection, but my concern here is not so much the ontology of proprioceptive being as the difference between individual bodies. It is sufficient, therefore, to note their relative non-identity: I am not Mario; Mario is not me – though in play, as on the way, we are inseparable.

***

What distinguishes Mario from the player is precisely the game’s principal form of agency – the will and ability to move forward by one’s own volition. Autonomy belongs in this instance only to Mario. And, one notes, he runs exclusively towards his own end.

From the onset the player realizes the following: Mario’s pace, as the engine that drives the game, is relentless – a force that can neither be halted nor controlled. Unyielding to the end, the impetus can at best be briefly suspended if, precisely during a moment of airborne suspension, the player swipes in the direction opposite Mario’s – each literally pushing back against the will of the other, turning into deadlock the opposition of protagonist and antagonist.

Alas, as is his nature, Mario’s energy is endless; in live play, his advancement can only be indirectly directed. He is the one taking charge of this adventure, with the player acting only as his custodian – a curator guiding him along a vector of his own making.

Even as a single-player game, then, we might say that Super Mario Run a collaborative effort. It is in a sense more acute than in any other Mario adventure predicated on a symphony of discrete motifs – a dance of avatar and player. One cannot play the game without (coming to) the aid of Mario.

***

Power, however, does not know charity. Like the player before him, Mario is in every sense an imperfect ally. His personal volition is not simply the condition of progress but, more frequently, of adversity. Indeed, the player, tasked by the game with ends other than the thrill of running, will often struggle against Mario’s resolve.

These struggles, primarily enacted to save the hero from delay, damage and death, also involve the recuperation of lost opportunities; items and coins abandoned, enemies spared, paths left untrod.

We see here the true non-identity of ends sought by the hero and the player. In playing Super Mario Run the latter, driven by the structural conceits of the game itself, plays the part of rationalist actor – a self-interested intrepid capitalist: “Collect these coins! Get a high score! Build this kingdom! Earn these fans!”

This is in stark contrast to Mario, who is quite literally unmoved by capital interests. His running speaks to the fact that he has neither need nor desire for material gain. He, remarkably, leaves options unmet – to be re-solved only by completionist re-play.

For the runner, however, there is no going back. Indeed, it seems Mario cares nothing for anything other than his own way forward. Only when trapped in a palliative bubble, impotently suspended from the life-world that grounds his being, will he suffer the indignity of retreat. Only on the move is he, in himself, at rest.

***

We arrive here, in the midst, at the original question: Why is it that Mario runs? What is he running for?

Wordlessly expressed in the act, one could, with due reason, suppose love to be the immanent principle of Mario’s run. But then, what is the nature of this love?

The answer is not self-evident. Mario’s run, though ostensibly aimed at a “happy ending”, in fact has no end. He continues, even beyond the final. Indeed, if the intent was merely to dispatch a nemesis and rescue a damsel, why does he push forward with such reckless abandon? And why does he persist even after the liberation of Princess Peach?

A striking feature of Mario’s run is that it not only carries him beyond the end, but also, more than likely, to his end. The supremely spirited little man – who, one notes, turns vertical ramparts into excuses for parkour and who vaults in style on top of anodyne foes – will readily run into danger, indeed into the abyss, seemingly for no purpose other than to carry on going. Once a Samaritan and martyr, one to die for my error, Mario now throws himself down vertiginous chasms.

Why he so rushes, we cannot know. Perhaps Mario runs into death because finds there a sense of existence, making his intent a kind of death drive. Or, on the other hand, maybe he is running precisely from death; outrunning time through time itself, as implied by the clock inexorably counting down the span of his remaining moments. Or perhaps, in keeping with his Sisyphean spirit, endless running, for Mario, is itself the end of running.

What, then, of love? I submit that, if Mario is running for any reason, it is indeed for love. Not, however, the love of a princess, or a love of power, or a love of wealth, but a love of it all. No matter what, the runner is unburdened by regret. He neither lingers, nor turns back, nor abandons his run. He lives his life fully, as a lover of fate – regardless of what form it might take. His is a love nature as such – a love of life in the absurd.

***

Of course, I am aware this existentialist reading is a construction – and, indeed, one that might well be opposed to the very spirit of the game. There is at any rate no such intent to, nor general appreciation of, the work, which hardly exists beyond the stupefying frame of culture-industrial mass-entertainment.

To be sure, to the designer, Mario is at most an empty receptacle. This Mario runs because Super Mario Run is a so-called “runner” – running, in this game, is a paradigmatic affordance, a conceptual scheme and conceit meant to facilitate a certain way of play.

On the other hand, to the consumer, Mario is neither more nor less than an idol – a brand-name which, per the iconic “M” that adorns his cap, is tinged at once with a sense of supreme quality and supreme idiocy. This Mario, runs because “I like it that way”.

And, of course, if Mario is anything in himself, he is not the image of angst. On the contrary, this Mario is a perfect neophyte; at once infantile and adult, the very dream of the innocent man.

So what is the point in ascribing to this phantom of colors and smiles – part childhood fantasy, part brand, part machine – a will to life? Particularly, one remarks, as the “man”, even within the phenomenal horizon of play, appears in certain instances as that which he in some sense really is – a blind and soulless dummy, an assemblage of code whose simple AI continues unabatedly till it runs, unwittingly, into a pit.

Still, though imperfect, there is truth to a reading such as mine. In art, as in life, authorial intent comes to very little. The “point” of art, as an existential and experiential operator, is not what it is but what we make of it. Not in the sense that it enables the construction of authoritative “interpretations” – as when self-titled fanatics argue about dogmatic canon – but in that it enables us, precisely, to move on. The power of art is the power to change, to transform our ways of thinking and living. To outrun the present.

***

Setting out with Mario offers the potential for a truly critical experience, a crisis of life, inasmuch as it confront us with our selves by way of what is different from our selves. In facing the runner,  we truly face an Other – one who, in facing us, bears the face of death.

I, who am not Mario, see in this face – which, at his end does carry an ineffaceably existential physiognomy – an archetype of a general nature. There is something like “running” beyond the confines of the game – and there, too, I find I am a follower.

When I run, I think on what it means to exercise, to remain healthy, to live in the moment. I appreciate the little things – the inscrutable mystery of being there, the singular beauty of the natural world, the absurd tragedy of the human condition – as I struggle, in vain, to escape the inevitable. Every moment lost to time, every step a leap of faith.

Running, for me, brings with it a profound sense of blindness; of not knowing – where I’m at and where I’m headed, when or how it’ll end. I, too, run with the machine-like diligence of an automaton; a creature of habit, unconscious of my motor operations yet successful precisely for that reason. And, truth be told, I have run into others, and down pits.

Perhaps I, the live human being, am closer to the “soulless dummy” than was originally imagined. And, I profess, this affinity is not limited to the act of running. Even now, I have set out in writing – I know not where, or how, or even to what end. Even in life, I am running blind.

These parallels are neither cursory nor accidental. The concept of play, like the life of which it is part, has no teleology beyond itself – we play to play, as we live to live. They are both equal parts absurd. Running, for its part, is a symbolic enactment of this way of being; deference of in-finite movement – the run from death, into death. It encapsulates the sense of life as its own master, its own teacher, and its own follower – life as love of life.

***

If there is a philosophy of existence to be discerned in Mario’s run, it surely is the following: In the end, a life of running has no end, for it is its own end.

Is that what Mario, or Mario’s maker, truly intends to say? Is it what others will say about him? No. But it is an experience I made following him. His game, as an artistic exemplar, speaks in ways and word unknown to the human condition – if one only dares listen. Games criticism is my way of thinking, through writing, on that wordless wisdom.

Which is only to say that, to me, Mario constitutes a latent constellation of crucial thinking, to be disclosed by way of critical writing. For if Mario made me think, as he in fact has, is that not in itself a matter worth considering?

Of course, what to make of this, or the game itself, is not for me to decide. Bound neither by authorial intent nor authoritative interpretation, a critical reading is not exclusive but disclosive – an opening to truth beyond the present. Mario’s run may yet lead others in hitherto unexpected directions. Inspiration, after all, knows neither law nor limit.

The wisdom of Mario is that in life even something as simple as movement, the very element of the platformer, carries a hidden sense of wonder.

Which brings us to tomorrow – thinking, with the runner of runners, a new beginning.

At the end of the written word, the rest of my life awaits.

I heed once more the Sisyphean call.

Lead on, hero, and I will follow.

Dis-missive

“Setting out.”

This is it. Beginning with this, the advent; ending with this, the adventure. This, the outset and the extreme, the road and the horizon, the thing itself. This, the when and the where, the how and the why, the order of things. This, the writerly way, the pathmark, the world of words.

In writing this, I am setting out as a writer. In writing this, I am setting out the written word. Setting out in this journal, on this journey. “Setting out”, then, in a two-fold sense – a fold suggesting the non-sensical difference between the poetic event of writing and the fact of the written.

Making a dwelling of this divide, the peripheral horizon joining being and oblivion, is my life’s crisis. Setting out writing as criticism of the written; word against word, inscribing a way beyond the present. Writing, thus, as a way away; a a crossing of alternate paths, a performative palimpsest, a becoming-otherwise of what is.

Writing not simply to tell tales, nor to have the last word, but to make a difference.

Writing to set out (on) one’s way.

Writing a course of life

As the river’s flow carves its course, the life of the writer moves only by way of writing.

Am I, the one setting out, a maker of myself – homo faber the writer? Or am I rather her counterpart, the capricious homo ludens? Or an impotent revenant, trapped between times past and times future? In the end, the scene of writing is only this. In writing, I am a writer; in being a writer, I write.

“Qui bono?” Why this question? This is my life. Isn’t that enough? Life, in the end, doesn’t justify; it simply is – absurd, groundless, harrowing, in-finite. If this text is a physiognomy, I am the self-effacing specter behind that mask. An exile of eternity, I follow the paths of life; this is my word and my world. All of it here, the immanence of writing.

Otherwise written, in writing this I am not seeking other than writing. With this, I am going nowhere insofar as I find myself in the midst. Not because my writing is at a standstill, but because writing is where I am at; the point in movement, the becoming of the wanderer. Setting out, in other words, not from inert contemplation, but in the act of writing itself. Writing, thus, as a form of life, as its own principle. Amor fati.

Choosing freely this fate; this is no paradox . Freedom is fate, is fatal; it is what is most important and most terrible about the human condition – a life fated to end. To be free, then, is not to occupy a state of perpetual bliss – it is not self-identification, affirmation without remainder, persistence without pain – but the struggle of becoming. Uncompromising, relentless, tangible; existence is nothing but this. Freedom, thus, is precisely as love of one’s fate. I don’t love what is given at the end of writing, but I love writing – I love the creative act, with its harrowing difficulty, its exposure to failure, and its false starts. This struggle is the otherwise of writing – the immanent “outside”, the fate of resistance.

Writing non-sense

The paradox of writing on the non-identity of writing and the written – the antinomy of existential non-sense and historical “omnisense”. Writing as difference; different ways of writing and ways of writing differently – setting out ways away, a passage beyond the cul de sac of the written word.

On the one hand; writing by way of the writerly a priori – the mystery of existence, before and before the word. Writerly duration as time lost; the irrecuperable event. Writing ex nihilo; emergence as the miracle of lightning. Writing, in other words, in a moment beyond the present, a kind of metaphysical interval; the a-temporal non-space of in-action. (Ineffable origins.)

On the other hand; the written word, as sign, stands aside in that it remains – it may be read at any point, and so occupies no point. The true enigma is that even this phrase – which in principle may be read by anyone, at any moment, from anywhere – exists someway outside the ordinary course of things. (Here is the universal in the particular.)

This antinomy is the element of the writerly life. Writing this as writing on the non-sign; the insignificant of the event. Writing, consequently, non-sense; “difference” as the no-thing of the between – the non-sensible wellspring of sense, the sensibility of being. Writing, in other words, on the aporia of meta-textual sense-making – writing on writing (“I am thy father’s spirit”). And yet, the signification of my setting out is nothing less than this – to breathe, to speak, to transpire.

Writing history

Writing, not as something simply given, the already-written, but as the giving of the given. Archaic writing; the principle and condition of material history, the technique by which we keep live the spirit of the past. Writing as “mnemonic”, as “aide-mémoire”, as “objectified memory”.

Writing, here and now, on the writerly diachrony; the non-identity of past and future, the measure of distance. Writing, then, by that immemorial technique by which history, and its writers, are made to endure. Written history as institutional archive, a receptacle of what must be saved if it is not to be lost. Making a signature of the sign; the work, and the work that follows.

Setting out beyond what is. At once past and future, the written word is a relic in the proper sense; a remainder-reminder, pregnant with tales of worlds other than the present. Writing, otherwise said, is an encryption; the tome as tomb, the remnant as revenant – the temple of the written as an ossuary of ashes and embers, the remains of life.

In writing, the the dead are preserved; writing speaks of and lets speak those whose time is no longer. “History”, then, as the story our passing; a spectral weave of life and death, of movement and stasis, inscribing the memory of those not of this time. The written letter as an epistle from and to the absent.

We writers know well the abyss of this diachrony. By instituting something like a history of disparate lives, an “intersubjective” and “transobjective” memory of what may yet be, writing situates itself in times and places other than the here and the now. “Anachronism”, “atopy”, “misplaced”, “untimely” – how else to describe a written history that is, by its very nature, a tale of worlds other than the present? Writing thus may be understood not as any-thing, but as a temporal incision marking a chronological caesura, while the written, as text, is consigned at once to a past no-longer and a future not-yet-present. It begins, always, with the echo of what, for the moment, remains absent.

The tragedy in this is that writing, so considered, is at once a keeper and a taker of time. “Days, months, years – has it really been that long since the onset of the beginning? Since I started writing?” A writerly question in every sense; raised, articulated, distinguished, kept and answered only by way of writing. The anguish, here, lies in the duration of this life, my life, spent writing; that I can waste my time on this, with only the wreck of the written as a monument to commemorate the effort. “Come, face your history – your story of life and death.”

Writing for the Other

Writing brings to a close by way of distance, enabling differential intermingling of opposites; wayfaring beyond the present, from one situation to another. Of course, this disjunctive parallel is only natural; human beings cross paths in different times and places, and then go on to find their own ways. Absentees of the present come together only tacitly.

Writing history as writing beyond life and death; the communion of one and other – seeking readers of worlds, times and places beyond the present. Writing, thus, as intermediary in the proper sense; a two-sided medium, the unliving bridge between life and life.

In this way, writing turns, by its very course, from the writer to her writerly counterpart, the reader. Indeed, in writing these antipodes are united along a shared axis; a touching of life and life, a responsibility calling to action by way of re-action. The turning of the poles on the axis of history ensures their mutual transformation – their change along the way, by way of the way.

In writing, the schism between writer and reader, which is inscribed in the written, is overturned; the becoming we of me. History, in the end, is communal; the gestalt of a world-spirit torn asunder. Am I not, after all, writing my own life’s story for you? And are you not forever changed, in some way, by actually reading this? Indeed, this very writing is a becoming-otherwise; in writing, I read and re-write myself. So emerges the other of writing, the writer-reader, the figure of becoming – writing for the other who is a me, by the me who is an other.

Writing criticism

Writing in the spirit of criticism. “Criticism” not as aesthetic judgment, but as sensibility. A proper critique, as a form of life, does not simply direct itself at some thing – be it an idea, an institution, or an objet d’art. On the contrary, it demands nothing of any-thing, but belongs to and is directed towards the critic by way of the thing. Indeed, the “aboutness” of critical writing denotes no-thing; it speaks to the very dissolution of the object-subject dichotomy. In criticism, thing and thinker are made one through a process of romantic self-reflection – the becoming-nature of Narcissus.

Criticism as the art of life. Life-art, including but not limited to the artefact – be it as techne or poiesis, ethos or pathos – is nothing but a material constellation of human thinking. Art, in this sense, truly is a spiritual medium, with the work acting as a relational chiasm; nature reflected in the human, and the human reflected in nature. The art-work before and beyond the written; criticism as disclosure of alternate paths. The art of criticism speaks by leaving something to be said; its criterion is nothing less than revelation, the occasion of truth.

Critical writing as negation; the harbinger of change. “Change”, that is, not simply as a reorganization of a material reality – as in the effect and affect of social, political, or economic upheaval – but as the transformation of living spirit. Writing, thus, as existential crisis – a blurring of all categories, the becoming-otherwise of what is.

Writing without authority; writing by the me that is we, the writer-reader. Criticism as an articulation of writing’s otherwise; the terror and trauma of negative dialectics. Always a spiritual matter; criticism, for this writer, simply is creative negation, creation through negation. It is poetry, fulmination, rupture – the disclosure of a scene by which to re-make sense.

Criticism of the closed book. If the written is a temple, critical writing is a ruination. Ruination not as elimination, but re-creation – the emergence of something at once old and new, familiar and strange, selfsame and wholly different. Critical writing, then, as de-cryption, an enlivening of dead words. Resuscitating the unliving remains; making live reading of the merely written. (The in-finite work of history.)

Writing as exposure of what is to what is not, criticism as the pain of disclosure. Critical writing, then, as the anti-didactics of the palimpsest; the erasure of the written by way of re-writing – writing and the way of white. (Inexorable apophasis: “Don’t abide by these words!”) Criticism, in other words, is a writing-otherwise; an unwriting of the written.

Writing not the final word, but a provisional one. Liquid writing. Now as then, the danger of dogmatism is not faith but the impulse not to stray, to stay on the path of the given. The way of ruination thus opens the space for traversal, but also transformation, transgression and transmigration.

Writing beyond propositional truth, as the eurhythmy of poetic gesture. Writing as expression – the responsibility of sharing. Critical writing lights the way in that, by telling of what once was, it lets shine a vision of what may yet be.

Writing as de-construction; the fragmented whole. In-coherence, patchwork writing, variation and repetition as signs of life and death; the finitude and imperfection of the written. A place of passing; not a terminus. Critical writing, then, as a making-difference; the written as imperfect metaphor, sketch, simulacrum, virtual image.

Writing obscurantism. Critical writing is a process of defamiliarization, of creative obfuscation, of perspectival transfiguration, of wondering and wandering. Words as locks, words as keys. Arcane language is a way of forcing thinking, suggesting ways other the doxographic; esoterica a way of signaling an exception of sense. Criticism thus remains what it must be; a challenge, a spiritual violence, a tenebrous terra incognita.

Critical writing as differential, the whole and the aspect; differences within and between heterogenous languages. Thus, the language of painting speaks of a “difference” in the relation between “figure” and “ground”; just as the horizon scions world from world, the whole of the gestalt emerges only in relation to negative space. This, a sketch amongst many; difference as the play of language-games.

Re-setting

Even now I return, always, to this. This is it. But what of it? “It”, the linguistic sign, signifies the insignificance of this. This, the non-sign – this still movement, this eternal passing, this ambiguity of living being and being dying. Writing, thus, headed here, yonder the written; returning to the point of original movement – telic finality in medias res. Writing not to stay with the word, but to follow the sign.

In keeping with the written, writing does not simply come too late; it comes too early. Directed from the first at a not-yet, it posits is a time out of joint – a diachrony bridging a temporal cleft by inscribing its historical gestalt. “Setting out” therefore signifies not just the beginning, but the end; it marks the writer-reader’s entry-exit by way of the written word. Indeed, in writing these words, I make myself present precisely in my absence; I write to the absent and into my own absence.

Such handiwork is vital; only by hand do writers make scripture of gesture, sign of sense, word of world. Writers set out as writers by setting out in writing. (How odd that the pen-wielder would be a hand-walker. Here is truly a body of writing.)

Setting out wayfaring as a life of writerly thinking. Does philosophy begin in wonder, and end in questioning? Or does it begin in wandering, and end in questing? “Inquiry qua quiddity.” A quizzical posture. Better, then, to be on the way – on the way away. On the way, that is, to my home away from home; following the path ahead, to my being-writer-reader-critic-philosopher. For writing, for this writer, is nothing but the moment of movement – of being on one’s way.

Writing, again, to set out; setting out, once more, in writing. Setting out awayfaring; a chiasmic turn – a re-writing and re-reading of the written. Coming and going by the lay of the land, charting a topography of art and nature by a myriad of courses. Writing this, and so walking off the beaten path; a stranger in a strange land, returning by word to the whorl of the world.