Where In The Hyperreal Is Carmen Sandiego?

Capital In The Twenty-First Century – Thomas Piketty
Kentucky Route Zero – Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy, Ben Babbitt
Manakamana – Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez
Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like To Be A Thing – Ian Bogost

Unlike redwoods and lichen and salamanders, computers don’t carry the baggage of vivacity. – Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology

There is a dog, wearing a straw hat, riding through the night in a delivery truck.

It’s Hamlet’s dog.

They are driving through Kentucky with a TV repairwoman, trying to deliver a package to a lost mathematician.

This Hamlet doesn't talk so much. He likes to talk to his dog, sometimes. He has a lot on his mind. He has his ghosts. He has his debts to pay.

You can control Hamlet, but only in the following way: you can control how he moves and where he turns, but not his destination. You can drive right or left, but he will end up on a boat to England. You can't change the future but you can change the past. When you are playing Hamlet, you can't change the story, but you can say what it means.

There is something astounding in Kentucky Route Zero, the magic realist adventure game from Cardboard Computer. It is not perhaps a masterpiece. It still feels just a little rough. But it is very good, and sometimes like a secret door opening.

There is a very specific mechanic behind this effect, combined with the redneck leprechaun setting. In the usual ludic meter of an adventure game you navigate a graph. At each node you are given a menu of choices. And so it is here, yet your choices include how to explain yourself to other people and the audience. You can drive around exploring the map, but new places only exist when the story needs them. This is your direction, your interpretation of the role. It impacts your backstory, fleshing out the shape of your tragedy. You get different choices for how to explain yourself depending on what you answered before. But the seams are hidden behind the form of a puzzle. The pinnacle of this technique, three acts in, is the song It’s Too Late To Love You Now, where you choose the lyrics sung to a suddenly open star-filled sky. It is a sublime moment of shifted perspective; I don’t think I have ever felt it so intensely in a game before.

“Master, does Emacs have the Buddha nature?” the novice asked.

The Master Programmer thought for several minutes before replying: “I don’t see why not. It’s bloody well got everything else.” – archaic computing koan

There’s an impromptu jam session in the middle of the movie Manakamana, high above the earth, suspended in a Nepalese cable car. By this time, the setting is not such a surprise, because every scene is set on a Nepalese cable car. A scene is simply the ten minutes it takes to ride the car up or down the mountain, of two seats on the cable car, from a single fixed camera on the opposite seat. These scenes have the quality of both a scientific sample and a stanza: it is a cinematic documentary-poem. The filmmakers are anthropologists.

It’s hard work watching real people this way, especially today; the urge to check smartphones and slip into continuous partial attention is strong, and most of the small and presumably sympathetic audience I saw it with succumbed at one time or another. What I found, when trying to stick with it, is a small sense of what it feels like to be that person, at that time, in that place. To be a grandmother with ice cream dripping down your fingers, or a musician having an impromptu airborne jam for the camera; but at the same time to be aware of not being that person, of not having your second ice cream at age seventy, of not having a clue how to play the sarangi, of not being a goat.

In the famous Thomas Nagel essay What Is It Like To Be A Bat? he teases out the unknowability of another creature’s internal experience, by using the alienness of a bat’s sonar as his key example. We are doomed to incomplete knowledge because we must anthropomorphise things, simply by being a human, thinking. Ian Bogost, in Alien Phenomenology, acknowledges this, but argues it’s not a bug but a feature: you can sidle up to alien experience by analogy.

In a literal sense, the only way to perform alien phenomenology is by analogy: the bat, for example, operates like a submarine. – Ian Bogost, ibid

For Bogost and the other proponents of Object Oriented Ontology, this analogical understanding is imperfect but valuable. It can even be generalized: that this is how every thing relates to every other thing, sapient, material, or conceptual. Bats, submarines, the planet Venus, forced labour, the theory of phlogiston, roti prata, breathing. This knowledge by layers of imperfect storytelling has been put under the banner of Speculative Realism, but professional philosophers, well trained in defense against irony, cannot agree on whether it exists.

When, about halfway through Manakamana, the light fades in from the dark of the cable car station, as it has half a dozen times before, but now revealing a car full of tied-down goats, my first reaction was laughter. It was funny due to raw absurdity, and then it was funny because the filmmakers really were asking you to watch a goat’s arse for the next ten minutes, barefacedly indifferent to your comfort as a viewer. Yet there is method in it; you see the nervous bleating give way to more relaxed sightseeing. You wonder if they are going up the mountain as potential milk or potential meat. In one sense the goats are a mental palette cleanser for the humans in the later scenes, but in another sense I could identify with them. The fixed viewpoint and the familiarity of the repeated cable car setting lulled me into unconscious sympathy. It is a sympathy that can be found in computer games. Play Frogger intensely and you start to see the world as a digital frog dodging traffic. Play Tetris intensely and tile floors become suddenly filled with intuitive meaning.

What is it like to be a bat? I don’t know. What is it like to be a goat riding the Manakamana cable car? I feel I know, but I can’t truthfully say.

((If the car had been empty, would it have cleared my head in the same way? Would I have identified with the cable car itself? Is the player of a train simulator playing the driver or the train?))

It wouldn’t be surprising to see a cable car in the forthcoming Act IV of Kentucky Route Zero. It shows its nostalgia for the vacuum tubes, filing cabinets and combustion engines of last century in every scene. It is about giant machines that smash your leg when they fail. It’s about old trucks, and whiskey, mechanical men, and people entangled in debt to drug companies. It’s built on a Shakespearean frame – players, dog-soliloquies, mini-game, boat trip and all – but that frame is well hidden. Technology, repair and debt are in the foreground. Above all it is about decay. It is a tragedy of depreciation.

Piketty is well aware that the model he proposes would only work if enforced globally, beyond the confines of nation-states (otherwise capital would flee to the states with lower taxes); such a global measure requires an already existing global power with the strength and authority to enforce it. However, such a global power is unimaginable within the confines of today’s global capitalism and the political mechanisms it implies. – Slavoj Zizek

Thomas Piketty has run a decade-long research program on wealth and capital, a ruthlessly empirical effort which uncovered masses of new data. This feeds into a model for the behaviour of large pools of wealth over time: that in the absence of massive shocks like world wars, private wealth accumulates at a rate greater than background economic growth (r>g), tending to increasing inequality without limit. Then he wrote an introduction for the technical layman, dense enough to be serious about the topic, light enough to be illustrated with cultural examples.

Like many histories, Capital In The Twenty-First Century ends up spending more time on the preceding era than its ostensible topic. To make his projections and suggestions on the 21st century he needs to explore the 19th and 20th. This is where the literary examples come in, particularly those nineteenth century ones where the definition of rich is very numerically precise. It’s possible that Piketty intended those much discussed literary diversions as nothing more than a hook to make the book more accessible. After all, he includes examples from not just Balzac and Austen but also Disney’s The Aristocats. Yet they serve two deeper purposes. Firstly they are qualitative data supplementing his systemic data from national accounts, building his historical case from a second point of view. Secondly, they are fragments of the capitalist imaginary, answering questions of partially alien experience. What is it like to live in Belle Époque capitalism? What is it like to live in capitalism today? Eventually, we come to questions unanswerable directly: What is it like to be capital? What is it like to be a capitalism?

Piketty advocates tilting policy back to 20th century welfare capitalism, by means of a small wealth tax on the rich, arguing extreme inequality creates a power disparity that undermines democracy. Such an effort would be an extension of the state project of legibility and control that James C Scott has shown extends back to their formation. One of Scott’s books even has the Nagelian title Seeing Like A State, though Piketty’s readership may be dismayed by its subtitle, How Certain Schemes To Improve The Human Condition Have Failed.

Piketty is a social democrat as well as a bourgeois capitalist economist, and at this point in history there is really no contradiction in that. We are not choosing between capitalism and Something Else; capitalism is the situation of a society with industrial capital and market pricing. Ultimately he’s saying that key aspects of 20th century capitalism were pretty good, and certainly better than what we’ll get in the 21st without political action.

This utopian conservatism is closer to Nicholas Stern, Francis Fukuyama or Paul Krugman than a revolutionary like Marx, though the shrill response to Piketty’s proposed wealth tax shows it hit a nerve. Indeed Piketty’s polite impatience towards Marx’s verbosity and looseness with data is another amusing Easter egg in the book, though it doesn’t stop him analyzing by class and superstructure elsewhere.

Piketty seems to have spawned two serious technical arguments among economists, one existential, revisiting the Cambridge Capital Controversy, one science fictional, on elasticity of capital-labour substitution. The existential question on whether the rate of profit is a price or a systemic effect in time is the sleepy feeling of drifting off while two people riding the Manakamana cable car describe how this ten minute ride used to be a two day hike through the Nepalese foothills. The science fiction is Piketty’s measurements saying in the twenty-first century, robots are a somewhat better investment than employees; the sinister mechanical men in the caves of Kentucky Route Zero come to clean the black grime again, scaring another batch of terrified researchers away.


But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
Laser guided, a gun turret aimeth. — Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2

Portal is as much a poem as a game. The creators take the vernacular elements of the first person shooter and make a discliplined selection from them. For instance, the only weapon you equip doesn’t actually hurt anything, because that option is simply not available, and doesn’t make in game sense. Falling damage has been removed. They then add one new one element – the famous portals. In the words of Jeep Barnett, one of the developers,

We try to understand our limitations and work within those and in some ways embrace them.

And embrace them they did. Once the game’s chosen elements and their relationships are established, it recombines them with wit and grace. And it tries to kill you a few times too, but what is art without struggle?

Though analogies from one form of art to another are not perfect, and I doubt the team set out to write a poem, the description as poetry is apt because the formal constraints of Portal make it possible to describe it in a kind of ludic meter. The remainder may spoil. (I also owe a debt to work from the Rocketboom Institute of Internet Studies on image macro haikus).

Like Goethe’s Faust, Portal is divided into two distinct parts, which differ in structure and content. Part 1 has a whimsical tone, but a formal structure reminiscent of a sonnet. Each level can be treated as a stanza. The structure of each stanza is then

G (O B|B O|S)* G

G is dialogue from the AI Glados, half sexy librarian, half HAL from 2001. Each level starts and ends with AI dialogue, in a great performance from Ellen McLain. The repetition is not as strict as a villanelle, but is similar in linking the beginning and end of a stanza. The AI returns to themes throughout the game (eg, cake).

B and O are the blue and orange portals respectively. These form rhyming couplets. It is the chain of portal couplets that progress you through a stanza. When you go in one portal and out another, you move one or both portals and repeat the process. In terms of rhyme scheme, going in the orange portal, and coming out the blue is O B. Then, for example, moving the orange portal and returning into the blue portal is O B B O. A Shakespearean sonnet has the form (A B A B)^3 C C, that is, three sets of A B rhymes followed by a C C rhyming couplet to finish.

The structure of each line is not restricted by time meter as it would be in the iambic pentameter of an English sonnet. However, the deliberately limited vocabulary of Part I, using floor buttons, boxes, doors, lifts, energy balls and switches, and not much else, still gives a sense of formal restraint.

S is a substanza. As Portal proceeds, the levels get more complex, and the AI will bookend sections of a particular level with more dialogue.

What distinguishes this game from a conventional puzzler is the retention of a sense of flow. This seems to have come from Valve’s process of rigourous playtesting (mentioned in the interview above). This in turn fed back to the reduced vocabulary and minimalist setting, which reinforced the formal structure. It means you don’t get stuck on an impossible or frankly tedious puzzle. This also shows the limitations of playing a game in poetic mode. It’s as if you couldn’t go past page three of Paradise Lost unless you read out the fifth line exactly right.

At the beginning of Part II, the AI famously and hilariously asks you to assume the party acceptance position. When you, as the protagonist, reject this and scoot off into the factory innards of the laboratory, the game itself leaves its formal structure for something more anarchic. It’s actually a more conventional FPS setting, with more jumping onto lifts and such according to timing, though you still don’t shoot anything except walls. The climax, though, despite Eric Wolpaw’s hatred of plays, really does have a wonderful setpiece, a coup de theatre.

Valve, this is a triumph. I’m making a note here: Huge Success.