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Magazine

25 July 2016
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The virtues of the loop, beyond the gif

Pau Cuyàs

In one of his classes Martí Peran came out with “the contemporary utopia is post-apocalyptic” and I thought it was spot on. I understood perfectly and could do nothing but agree with his convincing statement. It wasn’t long after The Dark Knight by Nolan had been released, and we were all cock-a-hoop with the character of the Joker interpreted by an already dead Heath Ledger. An entirely anarchic type, who never gives explanations to anybody, is not guided by money, power or any other material or immaterial entity. How the always sensible Alfred, the butler, described him, was that “there are men who just want to see the world burn”. That I also understood perfectly. It wasn’t a case of an irresponsible madman destroying the world solely for pleasure, so much as the poor misunderstand chap was a Utopian in Gotham. He threw petrol on the city to end this agony once and for all, and who knows, to be able to rebuild it, because anything built on those same foundations was destined to be even darker and more putrid that what had been there before. “Order”, just like weeds, needs to be ripped up by the roots. There the dark knight did only the dirty work of the elites, the establishment, and conservatism.

But I understood the phrase perfectly because it was a gaming one. The post-apocalyptic phenomenon was and still continues to be one of the most overworked themes in the world of interactive digital leisure. In Half-Life, a species of extra-terrestrials are destroying the planet in a near future. More clearly, in Fallout, the protagonist comes out of the bunker where he has lived his entire existence due to a nuclear war that has left a wasteland that in practice is inhabitable. There are also those where zombies dominate the earth, amongst which stands out, The last of us. And the list continues with Doom, The Walking Dead, Left 4 Dead, I Am Alive, Rage, Crysis, Bioshock, Metro 2033, Resident Evil, and a very long etcetera. There you’re not just a hero, so much as it is in your hands to reconstruct or not a new world. Establish new hierarchies and roles; with the old destroyed, the only possibility is to let in the new. And its potential is inspiring. Out with the ties of conventionalisms, order and progress: welcome to a new era where everything is yet to be done and everything is possible.

But the idea of re-beginning goes much further in this medium and is, in fact, intrinsic to video games. And not just in relation to the argument, the industry manages to give a twist to the cathartic formula to take it into the shadows. Something I discovered somewhat traumatically.

Yes, the perspective of reconquering a new world (if this is possible) without any pre-established laws or rules, of founding a new space or a new disorder is very attractive. And the big companies have known how to exploit this converting a liberating fact into yet one more figure of their reactionary machinery, and if there’s something to which videogames are indebted it is the loop and its possibilities. When Atari was developing the first CoinOp, the only possible way to make the game go on indefinitely was to make it end when the player “lost”. The player could then try again, but had to pay once again. A resource that on the other hand responded to the most essential law of capitalism (which is not supply and demand): to generate the need to buy again. Re-playing to keep the industry functioning, which found the way to make it attractive; the interactive failure would be called death. In this way, when the character fell after an arduous battle with, for example, a green plant, an animal with an axe, or against a Pokemon trainer that came out from the grass, the player “discovered” that even though the character died, he remained intact. In effect, everything remained the same apart from one thing: he’d learnt something. As would occur in the film Groundhog Dau (in Spain Atrapado en el Tiempo (Trapped in time); o encara millor, a la fantàstica Edge of Tomorrow, ); or even better, in the fantastic Edge of Tomorrow, the day repeats and you are the only one who has lived it already. The process of death, or the loop has given the player very valuable information about the mechanism, the way to defeat the enemy and in short move ahead because THAT’S WHAT IT’S ABOUT. Everything has changed, but in reality, nothing has. The universe remains the same, but they’ve given you something better than you’d ever wanted: hope.

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Sounds nice but it isn’t. Along with this form of death already used in Space Invaders where they “give” you three lives or opportunities, characteristics such as temporary limbo, and a small leap back in time are united as another opportunity among many others. Evidently death in this context has nothing to do with the end of life rather it’s about a lie based on the incapacity of communicating the failure of the player in a more honest way and the player accepting this. An easy way to understand it. So “the end” which isn’t as such, is treated in the king of the digital industry as a line flubbed during the production of the film. The director shouts cut, the actors go to the dressing room to go over their moves and with any luck; a note will be distributed to them about how to do better next time: Push the button X to bend down and when you see the indicator, press A to throw a grenade.

Death wasn’t the end of anything in the videogame, but we believed it, and we liked it. We liked this dose of replay. We felt comfortable with this repetitive loop until the music stopped. In my case, it was precisely in 2008, that same year of Nolan’s Batman dwhen the latest version of the acclaimed franchise of adventures, battles and platforms Prince of Persia, initiated in 1989, reached the market. The controversy amongst the players was triggered immediately; the hero couldn’t die. Well yes, but no. When the hero fell into the abyss due to a bad calculation or a button pressed too late and tumbled down to the bottom, his companion Elika threw herself into rescuing our hero to situate the protagonist at the beginning of the platform that had provoked the fall. Yes but no. We woke up hung-over and a racked body. They’d removed the false failure and with it, hope. We thought we were creating a new space, where we could become a swashbuckling prince of the Metaverse, this space where nothing is as yet made that is digital. Abandoning the hope of a Joker in our lives, life between ones and zeros was what we were left with. We were born too late to explore America and too soon to conquer the stars, but just in time to experiment in the digital world. And they were already slipping it past us. The song’s chorus becomes palpable; tomorrow will be another day; another day just the same and even though it will always be a little different imprisoned in its immutable rhythm. You kill, you die, and you play once again. Carpe diem for everyone. Nothing ends up ever ending and all that’s left is this sensation of finitude that doesn’t culminate.

Not so long ago Twitter incorporated the search for gifs in its own software. It was widely celebrated, as for a while now this form of communication had been gaining ground. These loop capsules of content served for everything one wanted to say. Any reaction had already been created in a low-quality mini-video taken from an old video. It was fantastic because this audio-visual recycling brought to light characters and situations that in another format would rarely have had any success. All that was needed was a gesture so that it could be associated with some response, a movement that was in some way peculiar so that thousands of users would use it in forums. And there they stayed, suspended in an eternal loop for the laughter of everyone. A new language based on movement that contains small meanings. The most akin to a native digital language, and one based on what there already is, in an utterly shameless way. In the face of the impossibility of creating anything new one doesn’t know whether to look for petrol or the loop of Justin Bieber falling over: “the contemporary utopia is post-apocalyptic”, obviously.

If he were rich he would be a philanthropist. Or that’s what he says. We’re not so sure. He says that as nobody has given him the opportunity yet he dedicates himself, while he can, to celebrating mediocrity and anonymity. During the day he types away and takes advantage of the peace at night to construct a shelter, just in case the apocalypse finally arrives.

Articles

25 July 2016

The virtues of the loop, beyond the gif

06 February 2013

Go to the movies

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