Mediamatic Magazine vol 5#3 Marijn van der Jagt 1 Jan 1990

The Nostalgia of a World Emigrant

A Small, discreetly hand-lettered sign says:" prophylactics for sale Ask Clerk"

The situation in which Case, the main character in William Gibson's Neuromancer, finds himself is that of an addict. Case is an console cowboy, a computer freak who through his deck has acces to a computer network, the so-called 'cyberspace'. Once he has entered this computer space, he is no longer conscious of his earthly existence. His mind is completely absorbed by the hallucinatory universe of the computer.


The Nostalgia of a World Emigrant -

When he has returned to earth, he is in a continuous state of unrest, his life is controlled by his desire for that other world - and this of course makes him an easy pawn in the struggle between the superpowers in the futuristic computer society described by Gibson. To be able, like Case, to leave the present world behind and travel in another universe is the realization of man's greatest dream. The quest for this other universe was initially directed at the space outside the atmosphere of the earth, but the search takes longer than expected, and extraterrestrial fantasies are gradually being exhausted. Meanwhile, on earth people have long since started to create an other universe. The dream factories work at full blast and create an uninterrupted flow of fictive worlds, hoping for the illusionary potency of the image. Technical innovations such as wider projection screens, panoramic lenses and a higher quality of image and sound are supposed to make our stay in those fictive worlds more agreeable. With increasing succes, image and sound are capable of evoking another universe which-imposes itself as an alternative for everyday reality. Yet this image-universe has one enormous handicap: it can only be experiences passivly. The creation of the possibility to act is much more important than the creation of images of different worlds. It does not really matter what a world looks like, as long as you feel that you can influence things.

This notion is perhaps the most essential part in the experience of the world. In Gibson's book, the possibility to act makes the experience of a different world so complete. Case's travels in cyberspace are not just a matter of images passing by - the fact that Case is able to act in that space proves that he has really entered that world.

Case can leave this world created by man, feeling certain that it also exist without him. He can return to everyday (science fiction) reality, aware that he will have to return to cyberspace because there is still work to be finished. At present this state of mind, the nostalgia of a world emigrant, is to be found only in moon travellers and in players of adventures. Members of the first category are quite rare, but one can daily meet adventure players on the train, where they distinguish themselves from other earth dwellers through their peculiar kind of conversation: I can't stand it: I'm still in that basement and I don't know how to get out. Yes, I've also been there often. It seems that there's a way to reach that window up there. After that you have to collect mountaineering equipment from that drunk in the street. Yes, the drunk. I gave him some money, bet I didn't get anything in return. No, you have to give him a bottle of whiskey, which you can find on the counter in the bar next to the church. But I think there is also a subterranean passage leading to the small square in front of the post office... These privileged individuals are no longer in this world. Mentally they have surrendered to a universe which is a great deal more satisfying than the existing universe. The universe of adventure.

Playing with expectations

Adventures, also called fantasy games, are computer games. The basic principle of an adventure is: you know that a world has been constructed which consists of a number of interconnected spaces. That is all you know. You don’t know what to expect in this world, you don’t know what spaces this world contains, and you don't know which characteristics these spaces possess. Often You don't even know what you are supposed to do in this new world. You feel like an explorer, in a world with an adventure density as high as in Indiana Jones. The object of the game is to discover all the posibillities that this new world has to offer. Sometimes there seems to be a different goal, such as scoring as many points as possible, or hunting some kind of treasure. Yet these are merely incentives to move on and on, until you know every nook and cranny. The adventure games may take many forms. In the older games information was mainly supplied in words, but at present there are also games with extremely sophisticated computer drawings. For instance, the starting point may be the facade of a police station with a little policeman standing in front of it. By means of the arrows on the keyboard you can move the policeman, and the monitor shows the spaces he enters. You still don't know anything, except that this new world is open to you, if you just go through the right door, use the right tactics to solve problems, ask the right questions and give the proper instructions. A large part of playing an adventureconsists of discovering possible commands, which are usually made up of a verb and a noun: Open door, Smash window, Take bag. You don't know beforehand which commands the computer knows, and in each new situation you have to search for those commands the game recognizes.

An advantage of this created world in comparison with our existing world is its economy. In this computer world, each element has a significance which can usually be discovered. A table in a room is never there without a purpose. There will undouptedly be an object on it (a knife, a box, a coin) which can be used elsewhere. Acrumpled newspaper will contain valuable information for the little policeman. Each element is a challenge, because they can all be used, although as yet you don't know how, A rope will immediately evoke a number of boy-scout expectations: it can be attached somewhere, you may have to climb, or hoist up something, or you may have to descend into a well. In any case something can be done with the rope, or it would not have been there. At least, that is the most straightforward explanation. Of course it may also be a trap. An adventure exists by the grace of the unexpected. When Indiana Jones explains to his archaeology students that a treasure is never simply indicated on a map - X never marks the spot - the next subterranean passage is indicated by an enormous X on the floor; in this kind of adventure film, the director plays with the expectations of the audience. In the same way, the maker of an adventure plays with the expectations of the players.

Becoming the maker

To play an adventure, you have to keep up a continuous dialogue with the creator of the world in which you find yourself. You are continually trying to discover the thoughts of the creator, something also frequently attempted on earth; but in this case it is not a mystical enigma, because the maker of the adventure universe is of the same calibre as the player. In an adventure you can be sure that the maker has invented everything especially for you, something that is much less certain in ordinary life. And because the maker wants you, the player, to feel quickly at home in his world, the adventure universe is to a large extent based on straightforward logical reasoning. A taxi sign in the street means that you can get a taxi there, and that therefore there are other streets as well, otherwise a taxi would be no use. A lift indicates a multi-storey building, and a dark alley is dangerous. The maker of the game has tried to anticipate what you think that he thinks, and he tries to catch you making mistakes through superficial reasoning. If you suppose that a dustbin below a window might contain all kinds of useful objects or indications, the maker already knows that the thought will occur to you. So when you make the policemen inspect the dustbin, you will get the reply: Wfiat would you expect in a dustbin... rubbish, of course!, and you feel embarrassed that the maker of the game has been able to predict your rather unsavoury thoughts. But now that you know how the creator anticipates your kind of reasoning, you try to outwit him in the next situation and avoid such blunders. Playing the game is like getting to know the maker, attempting to escape from the idea that the maker already knows you.

In an adventure game you constantly have an uneasy feeling of being watched. The feeling that the maker knows your most intimate thoughts. It is not surprising that the most popular game is a sex adventure: Larry's sleazy dreams. The player is metamorphosed into Larry, who finds himself in a world of whores, pimps, casinos, sex clubs and a seedy church where you can get married within a few minutes. If you, in Larry's shape, see a prostitute lying on a bed, you are undoubtedly interested in a screw. You may try to be civil and polite at first, but the prostitute will make fun of you, so that you soon reach the conclusion that it is not possible to do anything else with her. In order to survive however, you first have to buy condoms in the drugstore on the comer, otherwise you will die at once from a venereal disease. To get these condoms you have to disclose all kinds of embarrassing details about the way you intend to use them. Everything in this game is directed at making the player feel how predictable his behaviour is, and how commonplace his thoughts and embarrassment. Paradoxically, you can only play the game by conforming to these cliches.

When you play Larry, you allow yourself to be led by a primitive drive for possession and power. You feel a compulsive urge to make love to every woman you meet, to win every gambling game, to humiliate every pimp. You have already decided to speak the language of the world in which you find yourself, because it is the only way to move on. Just like Gibson's Case, you can be manipulated in every way, because there's only one thing you want: to move on and become fully acquainted with the world you have entered. You want to pick up every object that can be picked up, open every door that can be opened, enter every room, in the knowledge that each element may give access to even more elements the maker has put in the game. But you will never know whether you have experienced all the possibilities offered by the game. This is the paradox which makes playing an adventure game so addictive. You know that you should be able to penetrate each comer of the world, because the paths were set out by a maker with mental capacities comparable to your own. But you will never know whether you have seen everything, because you cannot get an overview of the maker's world. You can only get that overview by becoming the maker, which is what adventure players attempt. They follow the thoughts of the maker and become entangled in his brain. An adventure is a journey through the brain of a fellow human being who is expecting you.

translation Fokke Sluiter