A Note on Hyperstition and Hidden Writing

To interact with Hidden Writings, one must persistently continue and contribute to the writing process of the book.[1]

In the landmark Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, Reza Negarestani identifies a proposal towards a new method of narratology: that of Hidden Writing. It supposes we read texts not only in light of, but through their plot holes.[2] The reason for doing so is that texts are diagrams that are themselves networks of lines, crosshatching and bifurcating the earth. Earth is perceived as a singularity, terra firma; that is, a solid object: a hegemony, whether technical, capitalist, biological, or otherwise. But what are solids but “particles built up around flux,” “objective illusions supporting grit, a collection of surfaces ready to be cracked”? Never permanent, always decomposing. Robert Smithson was correct in identifying the process of “de-architecturing”, the decoupling of subject from form, a primal “return to dust or rust” which is characteristic of all elemental singularities, organic or inorganic. And what is effected by this decomposition, when fanged noumena detach and fling off this ill-considered subjectivity? The reduction of mind from matter, the emergence of the Cartesian fissure: a “mine of information”, a hole.[3]

The condition of any ‘solid’ mass (Negarestani uses the earth as an example, in his account of the exiled Iranian archaeologist (refashioned as “paleopetrologist”), Dr. Hamid Parsani) can be interpreted as “( )hole complex” (“with an evaporated W”): a reimagining of Deleuze and Guattari’s “holey space”[4] better equipped to synchronize with Cyclonopedia’s other multi-tentacled concepts. ( )hole complex attests to the meticulous choreography between solid and void, and the void within solid (“void excludes solid but solid must include void to architectonically survive”).[5] Similarly, narrative needs inconsistency, gaps, flaws, derailment and chaos. Narrative operates within limitations, is compressed into a linear trajectory through various forms of time (chronological; the destructive cosmic time identified by Quentin Meillassoux, which pours from schizzes in the hyper-chaotic absolute;[6] the “abysmal” modes of the inner Earth known as Incognitum Hactenus[7]) for which the page, the screen, and the earth serve as milieus, capturing its radiation as chlorophyllous leaves capture light. There is simply more happening inside narratives than they themselves are able to express on their surfaces. A main plot is used as subterfuge, or “hypercamouflage”, to smuggle in a multiplicity of subplots that once exhumed, irrecoverably alter the form of their host.[8] Thus the hegemony of primary interpretation and the illusion of the coherency of plot are savagely torn apart from the Inside.

This is not to say that Hidden Writing only operates on the level of representation.[9] There is an explicitly acknowledged debt in Cyclonopedia to Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘machinic thinking’:[10] everywhere there are machines – “real ones, not figurative ones”.[11] Likewise, narratives are actually transformed (“deformed”, “defaced”, or “messed up”) when explored internally (“exhumed”) by outside forces, through the navigation of the complex web of interconnected plot holes effectuated by the reader’s becoming-vermin, as opposed to an external (surface-level) appreciation. Far from upholding an illusionary fidelity and sense of incorruptible representability in its textual analysis, as is the case with “so-called hermeneutic rigor”; Hidden Writing, according to Negarestani, “can be described as utilizing every plot hole, all problematics, every suspicious obscurity or repulsive wrongness as a new plot with a tentacled and autonomous mobility.”[12] Stories that write other stories, machines that produce other machines…

***

Otacon: Raiden? About this Colonel of yours — I found out where he is.

Raiden: Where?

Otacon: Inside Arsenal.

Raiden: What?

Otacon: I’ve checked out all the possibilities, but I keep coming back to Arsenal. It isn’t a relay point, it’s the origin of the signal.

Raiden: …

Otacon: And, the encryption protocol it uses is exactly the same as that of Arsenal’s AI — the so-called GW.

Raiden: …What the hell does this mean?

Otacon: I think it means — you’ve been talking to an AI.

Raiden: That’s impossible!

Otacon: The Colonel probably isn’t GW per se. GW was most likely stimulating cortical activity in the dormant part of your brain through signal manipulation of your own nanomachines. The Colonel is in part your own creation, cobbled together from expectations and experience…

Raiden: That’s crazy…

Otacon: But it’s probably the truth. The virus may be starting to affect GW, which would explain the Colonel’s behavior.

Raiden: It was all — an illusion? Everything I’ve done so far…?

Snake: Raiden!

Raiden: Snake — what’s happening around here?

Snake: I don’t know. What I do know is that you’re standing right here in front of me. Not an illusion — flesh and blood.

Raiden: …

***

The narrative of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is full of holes. Ostensibly packaged as a blockbuster videogame for the then-state-of-the-art entertainment system, the PlayStation 2, back in 2001, it is in fact (to the disappointment to many gamers) a hypertextural theory-fiction being continuously interrupted by gameplay and cinematic cut-scenes. MSG2 operates according to its own timescale: principal character/actor/soldier Raiden’s conversations with the CO and other military personnel over the nanos (nanocommunication system: imperceptibly small biotechnical implants which make the relay of vertically-aligned operative commands, not to mention surveillance, all the more efficient[13]) unfold dramatically while the battlefield is held in suspension – ten minutes, thirty minutes, the action can wait. Don’t worry if the enemy can hear you (they can).

In the narrative’s third act, the authoritative voice known simply as the “Colonel” begins to exhibit outward signs of radical schizophrenia. These signs are linked by the nomadic rebel trio (the American-born Solid Snake and Otacon gradually wrench Raiden over to their side, the covert NGO Philanthropy) to a virus they had previously installed onto the onboard AI (called GW) of the H-bomb-carrying Arsenal Gear, done in an attempt to neutralize a terrorist strike directed at Wall Street. Eventually Raiden is convinced by Otacon that his commander was a purely fictional entity, an avatar of GW, and that his schizophrenia was induced by the contagion of the “wormhole cluster” program installed onto its system. But should we be as convinced? After all, schizophrenia is not caused by a virus, it is viral, “the very nature of virulence, empiricism, and hence the true nature of the brain.”[14] The most schizophrenic character is not GW, it is Raiden, who after all, has partially manifested the image and voice of the Colonel (based on his experience of playing the previous game, Metal Gear Solid, another narrative trick). What kind of fiction has Raiden let loose?

***

I would like to examine Hidden Writing’s relationship with another concept partially generated by Negarestani: hyperstition. An early definition for this term can be found in Ccru’s online glossary, which lists hyperstition as an “[e]lement of effective culture that makes itself real, through fictional quantities functioning as time-travelling potentials.”[15] Additionally, in Cyclonopedia, hyperstition is interpreted as “a seemingly forgotten website,” a “password-protected laboratory”; itself “a location for exploring a diverse range of subjects from the occult to fictional quantities,” which finds itself “swarming with renegade academics, pyromaniac philosophers and cryptogenic autodidacts”.[16] Indeed, there was a forum called Hyperstition which operated between 2004 and 2008, of which Negarestani certainly contributed towards (many of his posts have since been deleted, presumably as they later developed into published material).[17]

Although hyperstitional entities adopt a variety of guises, frequent tactics deployed involve tactics of subterfuge and a blurring of authorship across malleable boundaries of fictionality. “Fictional quantities” (to adopt the established Deleuze-Guattari term),[18] their causes and effects, fluctuate between states of becoming and Being, ungrounding themselves at each fresh attribution and appearance. An archetype for such an entity can be found in Professor Challenger, whose zoological studies were first widely publicized in works by Arthur Conan Doyle (beginning with The Lost World). Challenger takes on a new dimension in Deleuze and Guattari’s “The Geology of Morals”, which reveals him to be the self-proclaimed originator of schizoanalysis/nomadology, and in which he is observed by the authors “[giving] a lecture after mixing several textbooks on geology and biology”.[19] Hyperstitionally, Challenger’s actuality is a side issue: he remains a valuable tool for the authors not only to dispense their own experimental hypotheses and conclusions, but as Anna Greenspan notes, to “populate thought” and “produce something new”,[20] by generating anti-identity in the gap between subject and appearance. But more than this, the “carrier” or “puppet” (in this case Challenger) benefits by leeching off its diegetic meal, becoming-multiple and achieving something close to real existence. It’s no coincidence that many hyperstitional entities (Challenger, Land, Barker, Parsani, Negarestani, the Old Ones) are reclusive authors, which come pre-packaged with their own weird narratives.

Hyperstition is a narrative in flight, and can only be observed in motion. It crawls across narratological conceptions of the world autonomously, non-linearly and non-monotonically, in many directions. And this is where Hidden Writing can be drawn back into the fold, as a provider of a transportation network that fully enables hyperstition’s functioning. Through the interconnected complexes of plothole tunnels, fashioned by sprawling multiplicities of subplots (“Hyperstition is methodically inextricable from a ‘polytics’ or promotion of multiplicity”)[21] bursting out from within their host (main) plot, a hyperstition can navigate the resultant ( )hole complex and achieve its primary objective: becoming-real. This can only occur through a continual process of ungrounding and de-authorizing, delegitimization and a capturing of and experimentation with artificially engineered feedback.

***

Fascinatingly, hyperstition as a deauthorizing, deartificializing process has enjoyed an increasingly prominent life in the field of liberal, utopian politics. Notably, Srnicek and Williams spoke of hyperstitions as “orienting narratives with which to navigate forward”, which “operate by catalysing dispersed sentiment into a historical force that brings the future into existence”, in their expansive post-work programme outlined in Inventing the Future.[22] Similarly, a “hyperstitional manipulation of desire’s puppet-strings” as a means towards the reengineering of cultural “memetic parasites” is a contingent tactic within the operations of the “xenofeminist” collective Laboria Cuboniks (themselves a continuously becoming-hyperstition).[23] But in order to understand how this political tactic has been envisaged, and how it could operate on the plane of minor politics, we must turn again to Cyclonopedia.

Without burrowing too far into its terminology and Parsanian demonological agenda, it is claimed that, from the petropolitical standpoint, an accurate understanding of the political functioning of the Middle East can be obtained from its placement atop the flows of oil which circulate the globe: economically, historically, geographically, politically and ideologically. Oil is “supreme narration lube” that upsets the anthropo-Western hegemonies of the operations of globalization: its production and distribution easing works of Middle Eastern minor literature which (literally) unground any other system of global dynamics through plot holes of the earth. As an exhumed primordial soup which infuses the past into the future, oil is autonomous, a “global conspirator”, the flow of which “poisons capital with absolute madness,” usurping it as the dominant deteritorializing machine; while at the same time “bleeding into economies”, parasitically infiltrating and influencing world politics and inscribing oil’s own projections for a successful future. In short, oil is a multitude of political hyperstitions, and in Cyclonopedia, the most alluring and contagious ones.[24] Oil can teach us about an additional quality of the hyperstitional form: that at core earth temperature, its most stable state is that of a viscous liquid (much like the core earth). But oil itself is also a subplot of another hyperstition, the one attributed to “Negarestani”. And Cyclonopedia, when viewed as a main narrative, begets possibilities for further political tactics imbued with the desire to become reality.

Through the politics of Hidden Writing, the aforementioned authors of Inventing the Future and “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation”, have exponentially built on their dual roles: as hyperstitional parasites of Negarestani’s achievement; and carriers who facilitate the contagion through mutation of their political schemas, and recalibrate the virus into potentialities for their own hypergeneric and hyperspecific ends. In the case of Srnicek and Williams, the hyperstitional form operates as a diagram of progress, installed as a system of expansion and ruthless self-criticism.[25] This system is subsequently auto-reflexive, capable of withstanding any argument and adapting to any unforeseen change in temporal environment: as time moves forward on the chronological scale, the post-work schema will absorb any economic or political shocks – to the extent its limitations will allow – and continue to carve out a tunnel through ( )hole complex to enable a future of its own engineering to germinate. And this will occur through contagion of the idea, spread to other (human) carriers via a multichannel attack on all media fronts.[26] The tactics involved in actualizing the “world without work” will therefore become polyvocal and leprous – original inauthenticity.[27]

Laboria Cuboniks address the inauthenticity already rampant in the textures of a social media which facilitates the “puritanical politics of shame” through its virtual carriers: user profiles. The emergent politics of “moral maintenance” are seen to obstruct debate on issues of gender discrimination and wider issues concerning segregation and oppression, and to uphold a rigorous, victimizing conservatism. The solution is beautifully accelerant: “We want neither clean hands nor beautiful souls, neither virtue nor terror. We want superior forms of corruption.”[28] Persist with the new viral technology and methods of socialization, but adapt. Exhume and take command of the underlying corruptive forces emerging as subplots within this medium, but overcode them with outsider feminist antibodies, watch them explode, and spread the xenofeminist disease across a diverse array of socio-political causes and institutions. Enable and transmit the oily flow of hyperstition, “which brings a time of the aeons, a geological time, through a hole in historical time.”[29]

***

Colonel: Raiden! They’ve got Rose!

Raiden: What!

Colonel: Rose is being held in the holds!

Snake: It’s a trap!

Rose: Help!

Raiden: Rose!

Snake: Raiden, get a grip!

Raiden: But Snake!

Snake: It’s a trap. Since the Colonel doesn’t exist, there’s no way he can take Rose hostage.

Raiden: Yeah — you’re right…

Snake: I am right.

Raiden: …OK. … Does Rose — exist — ?

Snake: Don’t be weird. She’s your —

Raiden: What if I’ve never really met her…

Snake: What?

Raiden: If the Colonel is something that I partly dreamt up, then… everything I remember about her could be…

Snake: Don’t jump to conclusions!

Raiden: You and Otacon are the ones that say the Colonel never existed.

Snake: Raiden!

***

I want to conclude by returning to Raiden’s predicament. An open-ended carrier, or a “sink” for “eccentric agendas”,[30] he performs the superlinear tasks transmitted into his corrupted biosystem via a demonic Colonel-vector partially engineered by his own imaginary. He navigates an extra-diegetic narrative as an extra-diegetic subject: a xeno-subject, resembling the totality of the cyber-military flows which converge and compete within him. The only end to his mission that can be envisaged is an inhumanly engineered one. By allowing his schizophrenic narratives to diverge, and selecting from those unleashed narratives the most effective vectors of progress on which to cling (Snake, Otacon, Arsenal), Raiden performs a feat of Hidden Writing, boring his way out of the virtual battlefield and onto the New York streets, and camouflaging amongst its citizenry pack.

Notes

[1] Negarestani, R. (2008) Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, Melbourne, re.press: p62.

[2] Ibid: pp60-65.

[3] Smithson, R. (1979) “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects”, available online at https://monoskop.org/File:Smithson_Robert_1968_1979_A_Sedimentation_of_the_Mind_Earth_Projects.pdf. For a more thoroughgoing analysis of Smithson’s “abstract geology”, see Shanmugaratnam, A. (no date) “Glimpsing the Cosmos Through Cracks in Our Chrysalis”, available online at https://www.academia.edu/24976491/Glimpsing_the_Cosmos_through_Cracks_in_Our_Chrysalis_A_Research_File_on_Elysia_Cramptons_Music_and_Writing. For another perspective on the fissure within object-quality continuity, see Harman, G. (2008) “On the Horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl”: pp355-7, in Mackay, R. (ed.) Collapse IV, Falmouth, Urbanomic: pp333-64.

[4] Deleuze & Guattari (1987) “1227: Treatise on Nomadology—The War Machine”, in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia [Mille plateaux: Capitalisme et schizophrénie]. Trans. Massumi, B., Minneapolis/London, University of Minnesota Press: pp351-423.

[5] Negarestani: p44. This comment is a reference to Nick Land’s The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism.

[6] Meillassoux, Q. (2012) After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Brassier, R., London/New York, Bloomsbury Academic: p64.

[7] Negarestani: p49.

[8] Ibid: pp61, 241, 62.

[9] The folly of representational thinking with Cyclonopedia is given careful consideration by Melanie Doherty, in “Non-Oedipal Networks and the Inorganic Unconscious”, in Keller, E., Masciandaro, N., & Thacker, E. (eds.) (2012) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books: pp115-29.

[10] For the sake of the example provided below, this is true; however, the authors of Cyclonopedia (an amorphous “hyperstitional” collective of contributors occupying the interstice between the virtual and the actual, or the fictional and the non-fictional, of which Negarestani and the text’s subject Dr. Hamid Parsani are the most easily identifiable) present radical alternatives to the Deleuzo-Guattarian models of war machines elsewhere in the text.

[11] Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1984) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia [L’anti-Oedipe: Capitalisme et Schizophrénie]. Trans. Hurley, R., Seem, M. and Lane, H., London, The Athlone Press Ltd, p1. Cf. Welchman, A., “Machinic Thinking”, in Ansell Pearson, K. (ed.) (1997) Deleuze and Philosophy: The Difference Engineer, London, Routledge: pp211-229.

[12] Negarestani: p61 [my emphasis]. Cf. Marshall, K. (2012) “Cyclonopedia as Novel: (A Meditation on Complicity as Inauthenticity)”, in Leper Creativity: p148.

[13] During one such transmission, the theme of surveillance is granted full, unambiguous immanence, when Raiden is told that it is no exaggeration to assume that “whoever control[s] the NSA facility could move the world.”

[14] O’Toole, R. “Contagium Vivum Philosophia: Schizophrenic Philosophy, Viral Empiricism and Deleuze”, in Deleuze and Philosophy: p175.

[15] Ccru (no date) “Glossary”, available online at http://www.ccru.net/id(entity)/glossary.htm. Steve Goodman, in his book Sonic Warfare, dates the Ccru journal Digital Hyperstition, in which the glossary appears as its final component, to 1999.

[16] Negarestani: p9.

[17] http://hyperstition.abstractdynamics.org/. The date cited in Cyclonopedia for the “tumultuous discussion” over the uncovered Parsani notes which kickstart the text, 11 March 2004 (p9), is, somewhat pleasingly, inconsistent with any visible entries.

[18] Deleuze & Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: p153.

[19] Ibid, A Thousand Plateaus: pp43, 40.

[20] Greenspan, A. (2004) “Hyperstitional Carriers”, Hyperstition, available online at http://hyperstition.abstractdynamics.org/archives/003707.html.

[21] Land, N. (2005) “Hyperstitional Method I.”, Hyperstition, available online at http://hyperstition.abstractdynamics.org/archives/004711.html.

[22] Srnicek, N. & Williams, A. (2015) Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London/New York, Verso: p75. Cf. my work “Review: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams”.

[23] Laboria Cuboniks (2015) “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation”: 0x0D. Available online at http://www.laboriacuboniks.net/.

[24] Negarestani: pp13-14, 19, 130, 25-8

[25] Srnicek & Williams: p75

[26] Ibid: pp164-5.

[27] Cf. Negarestani: p191.

[28] Laboria Cuboniks: 0x0C.

[29] Wark, M. (2012) “An Inhuman Fiction of Forces”, in Leper Creativity: p41.

[30] Land. “The term ‘eccentric agenda’ is being coined technically here, to cover an immense terrain, namely: every hypothesis, belief, emotion or commitment that can be evacuated from the principles of hyperstitional activity.”

Epistemic Dam, or What Shadow of the Colossus Tells Us About Public Security and Societies of Control

The touch of evil mystery in these barrier mountains, and in the beckoning sea of opalescent sky glimpsed betwixt their summits, was a highly subtle and attenuated matter not to be explained in literal worlds. Rather it was an affair of vague psychological symbolism and æsthetic association—a thing mixed up with exotic poetry and paintings, and with archaic myths lurking in shunned and forbidden volumes.[1]

The term gamespace, when used in relation to video games, has been used in the past to denote a seemingly conceptual playground that is then analysed in relation to other social paradigms, including economies and political organisations, across lines of intersection. Less often considered is gamespace as an optical realm, with the illusion of real physicality: an aesthetic playground akin to cyberspace, but with the necessary distinction of being topographically constructed by a team of developers, as opposed to a perpetual, “open-source” project akin to a complex organism. Here I am going to borrow the term magic circle, introduced by Johan Huizinga in his classic study on game theory, Homo Ludens (1949), but used more recently by “new media” and “New Games” journalists to explain the theoretical boundary between the virtuality of the video game as it exists as a set of rules and conventions and the outside space of the gamer, and then subsequently to determine the transparency and porousness of this boundary. What I want to explore is this second definition of gamespace, i.e. the three-dimensional polygonal models of the video game as a physical territory; for the sake of convenience I will employ a new word – gamescape. This will involve a recognition of video games as being qualitatively different from previous forms of play. A gamescape is not simply an imaginary location embedded in a real one, conceived purely from the rules and objectives undertaken by the player, and only ideologically separate from the world it exists within; but a deliberate place that exists independently of such rules and objectives, bound within the magic circle.

Most video games are inherently mimetic: they require a sense of “role play” and the imagination of the player not only to control their actor,[2] but to transport themselves into the gamescape; in short, to believe in the environment they are vicariously exploring. Roger Caillois defined mimicry as one of the four basic categories of play, alongside agon (games of skill and competition), alea (games of chance), and ilinx (games that produce sensations of “vertigo”, or dizziness, such as amusement rides or rollercoasters).[3] “With one exception,” wrote Caillois, “mimicry exhibits all the characteristics of play: liberty, convention, suspension of reality, and delimitation of space and time. However, the continuous submission to imperative and precise rules cannot be observed—rules for the dissimulation of reality and the substitution of a second reality.”[4] By this he means that although gamespace constitutes a closed-off territory for the purposes of gaming, it can never be confused as primary reality: the player knows this if she is to consider her activity play at all. The gamespace must be considered “a closed, conventional, and, in certain respects, imaginary universe.”[5]

This poses a problem for the video game designer: how to create an entertaining recreational experience in a gamescape that allows the player freedom over their actions, to explore, to make mistakes, and so on; but that simultaneously is structured by rules, challenges, and objectives. These two poles roughly correspond to what Caillois called paidia (“uncontrolled fantasy”, or a lawless gamespace) and ludus (a rigid and ultimately “purposely tedious” approach to game design).[6] It seems to me as though the video game designer must compromise between paidia and ludus design for their gamescape to be effective. Too much freedom and the experience actually becomes less liberating and more quotidian, and the illusion of participating in a mimetic, escapist fantasy is diminished (online multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft bypass this issue to some degree with the organisation of players into “guilds” who then work together on agreed group objectives). If on the other hand the game design places too much emphasis on completing set tasks dictated by the character’s limitations or environment (if for example certain objectives need to be fulfilled in sequence before new contents, such as levels, items, or vehicles, become available), the game feels too “linear”, or too much like a thankless task.

On bridge of Dam
On top of the “beta dam” in Shadow of the Colossus, an area usually inaccessable in the final game

The balance between paidia and ludus can be ultimately understood as the extent to which the player is able to explore the gamescape freely and the opposite extent, to which the player is denied freedom; their actor instead being directed by the space itself, i.e. the designer’s will for the game’s content to be accessed in a specific way. Video game narrative may be considered as a series of non-interactive video segments (“cut-scenes”), strung together through the player’s actions; but this intermediary play, the bulk of the game, is as essential to the player in understanding the game’s narrative structure. How this narrative is authored may be the player’s choice, but the list of options, broadly speaking, are limited to the range of options offered by the designer. Whereas Marcel Duchamp spoke of the “art coefficient”, or the difference between an artist’s intent and the spectator’s subjective interpretation, as being the process by which art (or narrative) is constructed,[7] in a gamescape the designer can implement all manner of physical obstacles and handicaps to limit player experience, and steer the narrative away from the player’s desires.

Atopian paidia

In spite of this, it can be observed that video games have gradually employed a greater degree of non-monotonicity[8] as their history develops, with the player being trusted more to explore territory and implement their own ludic objectives through increased paidia. Partly this is for technological reasons. The leap from 2D to 3D gamescape design, as a result of greater processing power, was instrumental in this aspect. Earlier 2D games were nearly entirely level-based, i.e. divided into separate, independent stages: the basic objective being to move from one side of the screen to the other (usually left to right) while defeating enemies and avoiding hazards. Early examples of commercial three-dimensional games, such as Super Mario 64 (1997, Nintendo) heralded the arrival of a form of gamescape not previously technologically possible. Instead of resembling a kind of scrolling, interactive tapestry, as in earlier entries in the Mario series; the Nintendo 64 version begins with a 3D model of the princess’s castle grounds, and immediately feels like a more “realistic” experience. Instead of being littered with enemy monsters to defeat or clear directions, the player is able to navigate this initial model from Mario’s perspective free of penalties or time limitations. The emphasis is on control and fluidity of gameplay, and the sense (if only illusory) that the player is not bound by the invisible, guiding hand of the game’s designers. This castle garden’s structure is deliberately closed, using steep hills and other unnavigable terrain. In this sense game designers can be said to be not only landscape gardeners but cartographers: they dictate the edges of the map and make it virtually impossible to escape.

Another milestone of video game paidia is the Grand Theft Auto series. In these games, the gamescape is a single, fluid model: a whole virtual city, populated with ordinary people, traffic, police force, and of course law-breakers and criminal activity. The vast, interactive area embodies the developers, Rockstar Games’s attitudes towards player control and discovery, and is the primary reason for their massive successes. With little to no restrictions on what the player is able to achieve, no two experiences are alike, and with every (legal and illegal) temptation lurking around the corner, GTA is as close to Caillois’ definition of unrestrained mimicry that a video game is likely to get. McKenzie Wark, in a detailed study of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002, Rockstar Games), described this kind of gamespace as atopia. Built on what Foucault called “heterotopia”, or “other space”, an ideal at a remove from the common dysfunctional space we usually inhabit; atopia can instead be considered a “complete gamespace” – completely ordered and self-sustaining, with no requirement of externality, and existing seemingly everywhere.[9] Vice City is not a parallel universe, it is perfectly assimilated into ours. It is all-pervasive, and as an arena of play, it illustrates our own, “imaginary” gamespace better than any other. Wark goes as far as to label Vice City a “negative of gamespace, its atopian shadow,” which possesses a self-governing system of laws. “It is a game about transgression in which it is not possible to break the rules. One may succeed in the game or fail, but one cannot really cheat. (Even the ‘cheats’ are part of the rules.)” The game internalises transgression: in this way it is not even necessary to promote it. Law itself is “part of a larger algorithm”; the player manoeuvres their actor over the game’s physical “surfaces” in order to “intuit their way through the steps of the algorithm.”[10]

The player’s behaviour in Vice City is not inherently transgressive: the game itself facilitates violence, theft, prostitution, pimping, drug dealing, and so on, and presents them amorally, as methods of acquisition and progression. Video game play cannot be considered transgressive unless it breaks the rules by which it is defined, and manipulates the algorithm in unexpected ways. This requires disrupting the boundaries of the magic circle: to be able to move beyond the limitations imposed by the cartography of gamescape and construct new methods of play. Certain examples in video gaming demonstrate that it is possible to disregard the rules of play within a defined magic circle and still participate in self-sufficient activity that can only be defined as play.

H6-i5 beta lands
“Mountains of madness” floating in the sky over the Forbidden Lands

Sub-liminal palaeontology

Whereas in GTA players were made to actively transgress manifestations of the law to reap reward, Shadow of the Colossus (2005, Team Ico) had players follow the law to the letter, and ultimately lose for it (or at least reveal an ending that spelled disaster for the actor). The game’s premise was to defeat sixteen cyclopean, ancient beasts (colossi) in an order set by the immaterial, polyphonous deity Dormin, and thus save the princess from death. All promotional material for Shadow of the Colossus placed the enemy colossi as the game’s unique selling point, but as many players derived enjoyment from devising strategies to take down their immense opponents, others were quickly captivated by the scale of the environment they were able to explore. The GTA series has a similarly massive gamescape, yet in SotC the terrain is almost entirely empty: no smaller challenges or side-quests exist, and only one opponent is generated at a time, at a location disclosed by the authoritarian Dormin, and pinpointed by the player using a compass-like sword. Nor is it possible to complete the challenges out of sequence (if a player arrives at a colossus arena prematurely, no opponent will be waiting for them). As other video games moved towards non-linear design and player choice, SotC deliberately chose one of the most linear schematics imaginable.

In effect, the game is divided into sixteen levels, which consist of the following: navigating the expansive Forbidden Lands in the direction indicated by the sword, discovering the beast, and calculating and executing an offensive strategy, at which point the player is teleported back to the central compound (the Shrine of Worship) to pursue the next enemy. What elevates this monotonous exercise is doing exactly what is “forbidden”: exploring this infinitely empty, Edenic landscape. Unlike other games which often award desertion from the primary objective with unlockable content or upgraded skills, there is absolutely no gamic advantage for going AWOL in SotC (if anything, the likelihood of getting lost constitutes a noticeable disadvantage). The player and the actor are most bonded here, in flouting protocol to investigate the knowingly sublime and excessive, not for profit but for the sheer decadence of it all.

Bridge behind entrance
Hacking the game can reveal some unusual and memorable computer-generated visual effects

Of course the game has been constructed precisely so that players can find metaphysical rewards within its gamescape; interestingly, it is precisely because of taut ludic conventions that paidia is able to creep in. But it can only be expected that from this point paidia would be converted by the players back into ludus, that a small group of fanatical players would create their own games using the available tools of the gamescape and often considerable skills of using external software to navigate the underlying properties which make up the game: the game code itself, a kind of sub-gamescape. Like DNA, the “code” which determines the direction and rate of protein growth in living organisms, video games are composed of a single extensive program, an ur-text which is responsible for everything from facilitating the narrative, deciding which sound files play as a result of certain actions, and, perhaps in this case most significantly, the game’s graphics: i.e. the gamescape and all its contents. If the hacker is lucky, he (in virtually all cases it seems to be a “he”) will find certain leftover content not implemented into the final version of the “game”, and not intended to be accessible to the player. For many, this is the goal of their investigation. Seeking out this hidden data is a kind of palaeontology: it can be studied and used to reveal the various stages of the game’s evolution, akin to carbon dating, and thus further speculations can be made over the design of the finished gamescape and its previous incarnations.

There are several reasons why SotC should prove attractive to these kinds of players; all of them relate in some way or another to conventional or recent views on aesthetics. In the conceptual sense, SotC is quite clearly sublime: the diminutive hero must battle with monsters of such immensity that the screen can often only capture them in part. Likewise, the Forbidden Lands are sublime: containing vast mountains, forests, deserts, ruined temples and forts; but more importantly, they are empty (or at least seem to be) – free from human presence, and inhabited only by the occasional bird or lizard. Between fights, the atmosphere is existential, alien, even Lovecraftian: the game’s orchestrated soundtrack is not present (It creeps in only as the player approaches a colossus), reducing audible sound to howling winds and the actor’s footsteps. As a result, anything visible or audible to the player may become a source of intrigue, particularly if it resembles a human construction (such as a ruined pillar or the strange stone rings which populate the desert), or potentially the hand of an even elder race (the scale of the Shrine of Worship and the bindings on some of the colossi suggest an inhuman precedence).[11] Such accents in an otherwise barren landscape actually enhance the player’s alienation, awe, and fascination, as well as the scale of his surroundings. One is reminded of Douglas Adams’ description of another formally crafted gamescape, the Earth in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “very very very big, so big that it gave the impression of infinity far better than infinity itself.”[12]

Orange brick_edge
The seam of a deleted grid square

The emptiness of the mystical Forbidden Lands entices players to project any kind of meaning on what is not there, based on what is, and what should be or ought to have been. The results of expert hackers and compilers of unused SotC content, such as Michael Lambert, who goes by the YouTube username Nomad Colossus, have revealed to more casual players the scope of Team Ico’s initial project. The most significant discoveries made are the remnants of “test areas”, used by the game developers to try out battles with colossi before their designs were finalised – and there is a high probability that unused, deleted colossi designs once occupied them.[13] Even more startling is a complete model of a dam that seemingly had no other but decorative purposes. Lambert’s current conclusions are that, despite official indications from Team Ico that the finished model of the Forbidden Lands is entirely based on the placement of the finished 16 colossi arenas, and would be “completely different” if more were incorporated; that “there never was a different map”; and the “beta” content is evidence of a shrunken final design “planned at the outset”, rather than a complete rebuild.

Map_all extra lands
A version of the in-game map restored by Lambert to include the “inaccessible” locations – the territory floods over the map
Beta + retail colossi locations
Locations of the game’s sixteen colossi (red) and speculated territories for the discarded eight (blue)
B2 model_cut
Section of a probable colossus test area partially remaining in the finished game

Artifacts, aesthemes, ludic tension

Eddo Stern uses the term artifact as an explainer for unintended phenomena within video game gameplay. In computer science, the term is more familiar, used to refer to “undesired cosmetic disturbances” which result from compression of jpeg or mp3 files, or unpredictable ASCII characters in a text file; all of which pre-empt an “unperfected aesthetic disturbance”. In gamescapes, artifacts can reveal themselves unexpectedly, but more commonly are prompted by erratic or methodological player actions. Regardless, all artifacts are extra-diegetic: they disturb the narrative flow orchestrated by the game designer, and often the senses.[14] In turn, they invert old and invent new diegetic and aesthetic forms.

SotC’s hidden artifacts certainly make for compelling viewing to players who would otherwise be unaware of the presence of large, physical manifestations of data beyond unattainable horizons: objects that to borrow Robin Mackay’s term can be regarded as aesthemes. These mountains, this dam; their “deep resonance and transcendent qualities […] make appeal to a transcendent self which, through sensory experience, is innately touched by ideas that are equally transcendent.”[15] Aesthemes convey the transformative properties of the artistic phenomenon without relying on falling back on Kantian sublimity or Duchampian co-authorship; they exist independently of the subject’s relation to the ideas that subject conceives, and furthermore in this instance amount to a reconceptualization of both subject (the player) and aesthetic content (the fractured gamescape and implied gamespace).[16] The search for beta content in SotC, of which the dam is the end result, demonstrates the emergence of new guerrilla modes of play outside of the game’s physical boundaries, which in turn defies the designers’ understanding of players’ capabilities.  To its core, hacking is an ontological activity. Practitioners transform gamespaces, and themselves become transformed subjects, free of the autistic behavioural algorithms[17] which they were ultimately expected to endure to be considered players at all. When these subjects are able to navigate the hero Wander – to allow him to “wander” from his omnisciently scrutinised assignment, which is to rescue the damsel Mono (a name implying singularity and restriction), they simultaneously stretch the magic circle from within and play outside of Team Ico’s jurisdiction. They cross over an epistemic gap: in real terms, they gain knowledge of the game’s construction, as an archaeological discovery, a gnostic journey, a technophilic qabbala.

It is disheartening, therefore, that this new ontology of gaming has met with such unambiguous resistance. Previous attempts to acquire accurate information about SotC’s development from Team Ico have caused communications to cease, and this policy is unlikely to change.[18] Much has been made of the game’s “artistic” qualities, which the developers evidently worked hard at to achieve, not only by promoting a minimalist, creative and beautiful experience, but also by the scope of the player’s possible actions and concealing ugliness. Director of the project Fumito Ueda has stressed clearly his preferred interpretation: in an interview he stated “I think [the game] holds more romantic appeal if you don’t know the specifics.”[19] But by doing so he revealed himself to be less of an artist and more of a manipulative auteur. There have certainly been artists working in more traditional media that have objected to a spectator or a critic’s evaluation of their work, but here is a case where the artists involved have actually been able to impose an interpretation of their own choice – romanticism – and have insinuated that any actions taken to reject the suggested readings and facilitate reinterpretations are akin to criminality. This seems especially confusing as the whole objective of the game is to search for the colossi to fight, and to explore the Forbidden Lands in order to do so.

The player’s impulse to flaut the rules imposed by gamespace relates to Heather Alexandra’s concept of ludic tension, or the tension exerted on the player to uphold ludic and diegetic elements of a game at the expense of forming an individual game narrative. Alexandra conceives this tension as an active, affective, “emotional” force which indirectly forces a singular interpretation or gaming experience. The game “transubstantiates into a noumenon, a platonic idea in the mind of the player.”[20] It becomes little more than interactive film, antithetical to paidia, bland and unadventurous. This is not to suggest that a noumenal, monotonic vision of the game is Team Ico’s, but when there are so few other “legitimate” forms of play within SotC, there seems to be a lack of foresight concerning the degree to which ludic tension would be resisted and lose out to the persuasiveness and intrigue of the game’s huge, mysterious territory.

Dam_Devil image
The dam may have been a backdrop to a fight against a deleted colossus, Lambert speculates

Controlling gamespace

One is tempted to think of the Forbidden Lands as a self-contained disciplinary society, akin to the juridical and prison systems described by Foucault; a fixed space overseen by its creators from the Panopticon, poised to reproach deserters and troublemakers. But it would be more accurate to observe Team Ico’s microcosm as a Deleuzian control society instead. “Enclosures are molds,” said Deleuze, “distinct castings, but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other”.[21] As we have seen, the gamescape of the Forbidden Lands may be fixed, if ultimately inconceivable; yet the gamespace fluctuates with every new discovery. As a result, Team Ico fail to enclose their version of SotC: its grand yet imperfect programming is penetrable, therefore its designers can only modulate its image and dissuade multiplicity of that image; disguising its atopia as heterotopia. This method of control is harder to diagnose than disciplinary instruction, which can easily be challenged or rejected outright, which is often exactly what happens when, for example, artistic institutions announce compromising plans for the sake of further monetization. But that it has managed to creep its way into artistic content, into the magic circle is insipid, and should not go unnoticed.

The greatest issue with Team Ico’s univocal control is that it is undemocratic. We can define democracy as the citizenry (demos) having control over that which has control over them (i.e. the instruments of control in that society: government, economic institutions, etc.). While it should never be a goal in itself, free democratic movement should be able to operate independently of and exist as a challenge to law and modular tension. Renegade action demonstrates effective methods of undermining state control and revealing artifacts blocked by intelligence agencies. Yet how we interpret this information and the measures which were implemented to disguise it from us are more important than the mere acquisition of anti-democratic secrets. Consider the news stories back in April 2016 regarding the leaking of over 11.5 million files from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, which unveiled extensive levels of tax evasion from wealthy elite figures from global finance and politics.[22] One name leapt upon by the British media was prime minister David Cameron, whom it had been revealed received £200,000 as a tax evasive measure in 2011. To contain further scandal, Cameron took the unprecedented step of publishing his personal tax records for each year of his premiership up to 2014-15. However, this seemingly reconciliatory measure quickly spread into a witch hunt, wherein every senior UK politician was so mistrusted by the public that by failing to follow Cameron’s lead they could be interpreted as suspicious or underhanded.[23] Others went further, implying perhaps rightfully that the distinction between politician and non-politician was misleading, pointing instead to overseas multinationals’ abuse of the global tax system as more significant; yet this measure escalated further into a weak admission that no-one should be exempt from publicising their tax returns.[24] Thankfully the demand for further transparency was quickly curtailed, before the emphasis shifted from naming and shaming public individuals to the “nothing to hide” mentality that apologises for any private security breach nominally covered by the Data Protection Act.

The obvious message here is that revealing information regarding others may escalate into revealing information regarding ourselves (something Julian Assange would know all about). “Tension” over our behaviour is not only a coercive force used by figures of governmentality to incite particular responses, it is also something we project onto ourselves, our peers, and our communities. We ourselves present a large risk to our own security and privacy:  the social media profiles, image feed, and string of security passwords we’ve been encouraged to litter throughout the internet are just a fraction of the evidence that we are as much participants of a control society as we are its victims.[25] We too possess our fair share of artifacts and aesthemes; sometimes we even leave them in plain sight.

Nevertheless, democratic self-control is important; this includes the right to decide our own paths free of tension, observation or persecution. It is even necessary and expected to some degree for cartographies to leak outwards: control societies “work only when they break down, and by continually breaking down.”[26] Data leaks that remap socio-political ontologies, as a result of unsolicited action, can be internalised, like any predictable behaviour. Freedoms of thought and expression run like viruses through our algorithmic megastructure, creating ruptures that heal themselves, allowing the host to grow stronger. New rules are made by allowing old ones to be broken. Yet the size and shape of the rupture dictate the nature of reconstruction; in atopias, individuality can mean the difference between meaningless propagation and practical, ontological influence.

Beta dam_main1
The beta dam up close

Conclusion

The aesthetic case for Team Ico’s control paradigm is a valid, and not ineffective one. The linear gameplay of SotC helps to develop the intensity of the player’s action and sense of challenge to a crescendo, in an otherwise permeable gamespace. Yet the implications of the actions of play in within a defined territory inevitably permeate outwards, into a larger but less defined space. Consider Huizinga’s comments made immediately following his use of the phrase “magic circle”:

Inside the play-ground an absolute and peculiar order reigns. Here we come across another, very positive feature of play: it creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it “spoils the game”, robs it of its character and makes it worthless. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play, as we noted in passing, seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. Play has a tendency to be beautiful. It may be that this aesthetic factor is identical with the impulse to create orderly form, which animates play in all its aspects. The words we use to denote the elements of play belong for the most part to aesthetics, terms with which we try to describe the effects of beauty: tension, poise, balance, contrast, variation, solution, resolution, etc. Play casts a spell over us; it is “enchanting”, “captivating”. It is invested with the noblest qualities we are capable of perceiving in things: rhythm and harmony.[27]

While it is preferable to play a game that is aesthetically appealing than one that is not, disruption of a game’s order is an equally valid method of play: educational, creative, skilful, vertiginous. Caillois dedicated a whole chapter of his study to the “corruption of games”, and spoke positively of the “desire for disorder and destruction” associated with ilinx.[28] The magic circle can be thought of as a positive barrier, a shield from the outside world where ordinary laws  are suspended; but more often we see this barrier being pushed both inwards and outwards. Refusing to accept any boundary as immobile and opaque not only leads to new forms of play, but also fluid ways of self-conception and effective relationships with control societies that lie outside its territory. Once atopia is fractured, and gamespace changes from an ideological subsistency to a fragile ecology, we affirm play as the means of collective social and cognitive development once more.

All images taken from Nomad’s Blog and used with permission.

Notes

[1] Lovecraft, H.P., At the Mountains of Madness. In Klinger, L. (2015) The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, New York, Liveright Publishing Corporation, pp457-572.

[2] The tem “actor”, proposed by James Clinton Howell, is given to the game’s playable character(s). Howell, J.C. (2007) “Driving Off the Map”, Deltahead Translation Group, available online at http://www.deltaheadtranslation.com/MGS2/DOTM2.htm.

[3] Caillois, R. (2001) Man, Play and Games [Les jeux et les hommes]. Trans. Barash, M., Urbana/Chicago, University of Illinois Press, p12.

[4] Ibid, p22.

[5] Ibid, p19.

[6] Ibid, p13.

[7] Duchamp, M. (1957) “The Creative Act”, transcript from Session of the Creative Act, Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Houston, Texas, April 1957. Available online at Radical Art [http://radicalart.info/things/readymade/duchamp/text.html].

[8] Reza Negarestani defines non-monotonicity as “a synthetic form of inference whose consequences are not straightforwardly or linearly dictated by its premises or initial conditions.” Negarestani, R. (2014) “The Labor of the Inhuman”. In: Mackay, R. & Avanessian, A. (eds.) #Accelerate, Falmouth, Urbanomic Media Ltd, pp425-466.

[9] Wark, M. (2006-7) “ATOPIA: on Vice City”, in GAM3R 7H30RY, version 1.1, published online by Institute for the Future of the Book [http://www.futureofthebook.org/gamertheory/], pp101-25 (my italics).

[10] Ibid, pp118-21.

[11] My own constraints here prevent me from exploring the full potential of the similarities between the Forbidden Lands and the work of Lovecraft; needless to say they are extensive.

[12] Adams, D. (1979) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, London, Pan Books, p135.

[13] Lambert and others have collaborated in the past to gather as much information as possible about all the colossi, including those that were scrapped during various stages of the game’s development. SotC’s director, Fumito Ueda, is reported to have initially conceived of the game having 48 colossi; at an early stage this number was reduced to a more realistic 24, and “halfway through production” this number thinned out again to 16. A few screenshots of the 8 discarded at this point exist, and using these images and the few sections of mountains hiding beyond the game’s natural borders, this group of dedicated fans have collectively made some detailed yet sound hypotheses. See more at Nomad Colossus (2011) “Unused/Beta Colossi”, available online at Nomad’s blog [http://nomads-sotc-blog.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/unusedbeta-colossi.html]; Nomad Colossus (2015) “Shadow of the Colossus – Beta colossi recap & update”, video uploaded at https://youtu.be/5Do_0aWpYeo.

[14] Stern, E. (2002) “A Touch of Medieval: Narrative, Magic and Computer Technology in Massively Multiplayer Computer Role-Playing Games”, available online at http://eddostern.com/texts/Stern_TOME.html.

[15] Mackay, R. (2014) “Neo-Thalassa: A Fantasia on a Fantasia”. In Mackay, R., Pendrell, L. & Trafford, J. (eds.) (2014) Speculative Aesthetics. Falmouth, Urbanomic Media Ltd, pp97-105 (my italics).

[16] Mackay, comments in “Discussion”, Speculative Aesthetics, pp113-4.

[17] Corruption of the phrase “autistic conversational algorithms”, in Stern, “A Touch of Medieval”.

[18] Nor is this policy unique to Team Ico. Lambert and his associates have been turned away multiple times, and have reached the conclusion that “it’s extremely difficult to get Japanese developers on the record about anything regarding unused [content] in their games or even the specifics of the game’s development.” According to a journalist at Gametrailers, some of video gaming’s biggest development teams, including Nintendo and Square Enix, are extremely sceptical about disclosing any production secrets to the public. Nomad Colossus, “Unused/Beta Colossi”.

[19] In an interview with Daniel Robson (Edge #261, November 2013). Ibid.

[20] Alexandra, H. (date uncertain) “Ludic Fuckery, Dynamics, and Emotional Response”, TransGamer Thoughts, available online at http://transgamerthoughts.com/post/109631171387/ludic-fuckery-dynamics-and-emotional-response.

[21] Deleuze, G. (1992) “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, October, Vol. 59 (Winter, 1992), pp3-7. Available online at http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0162-2870%28199224%2959%3C3%3APOTSOC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-T.

[22] E.g. Harding, L. (2016) “What are the Panama Papers? A guide to history’s biggest data leak”, The Guardian, available online at http://www.theguardian.com/news/2016/apr/03/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-panama-papers.

[23] Boffey, D. (2016) “Cameron faces questions over £200,000 gift from mother”, The Guardian, available online at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/apr/09/david-cameron-questions-gift-mother; Riley-Smith, B. (2016) “Every MP under pressure to publish tax return [sic] after David Cameron reveals income”, The Telegraph, available online at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/04/10/every-mp-under-pressure-to-publish-tax-return-after-david-camero/.

[24] Murphy, R., (2016) “What Can MPs’ Tax Returns Actually Tell Us About Dodgy Dealings?” Interview by Sam Wolfson for Vice [http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/what-do-mps-publishing-their-tax-returns-actually-tell-us-about-tax].

[25] Cascio, J. (2005) “The Rise of the Participatory Panopticon”, available online at http://www.openthefuture.com/wcarchive/2005/05/the_rise_of_the_participatory.html.

[26] Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1984) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia [L’anti-Oedipe: Capitalisme et schizophrénic]. Trans. Hurley, R., Seem, M. and Lane, H., London, The Athlone Press Ltd, p8.

[27] Huizinga, J. (1949) Homo Ludens, London/Boston/Henley, Routledge & Kegan Paul, p10. PDF available at http://art.yale.edu/file_columns/0000/1474/homo_ludens_johan_huizinga_routledge_1949_.pdf.

[28] Caillois, p24. For more regarding the concept of ilinx within video games, see Bateman, C. (2006) “The Joy of Ilinx”, Only a Game, available online at http://onlyagame.typepad.com/only_a_game/2006/05/the_joy_of_ilin.html.