Cover Concept

Below, preliminary cover art for my forthcoming book, due out from NYU Press in Spring 2018:

mtmte cover

I really like the way the designers have integrated artwork from Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902)—tucking it into the corner so that it seems to glare down at the Enterprise refit from the filming of 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The story behind the latter image element is a saga in itself, which I will have to wait to address in a future post; right now I’m too busy going over the copyedited manuscript.

Review: Masters of Doom

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created An Empire and Transformed Pop Culture
David Kushner
New York: Random House, 2003
Review originally published in January 2004 at the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies (RCCS)

David Kushner’s Masters of Doom, a spirited, winningly naive history of the personal-computer boom and the offbeat souls who design and play videogames, reminded me a lot of Steven Levy’s Hackers. Published in 1984, Levy’s sprawling book was an early and influential attempt to condense thirty years of computer culture into a form fit for mainstream readers. Between the 1950s and the 1980s, computers went from private to public, from mini to micro. Room-sized ENIACs housed on college campuses and guarded by “priesthoods” of elite technicians were reinvented for the home market as funky desktop boxes, built from kits or purchased from companies like Tandy, Commodore, and Apple. Possessing little in the way of storage capacity or graphic capability, these machines’ meager 8K and 16K memories would nonetheless be jammed with programs written in BASIC by home users eager to code a better mousetrap—or the next big game.

Hackers, which took its title from the term for virtuoso teenage programmers increasingly visible on cultural radar through films like Tron (1982) and WarGames (1983), appealed on multiple mythic fronts: it was a tale of ingenuity (most hackers were self-taught), of nonconformity (many were socially misaligned nerds), and of profitability (for a famous few, like Bill Gates, were able to turn their programs into products, making millions and founding empires). Hackers, in short, told a pleasingly American story, despite its high-tech trappings. And one of the book’s incidental but not insignificant functions was to cast in homely, unthreatening terms the single largest upheaval in society and commerce since the Industrial Revolution. Computers aren’t scary; they’re fun! Just look at all the nutty kids who’ve fallen in love with them!

Masters of Doom picks up where Hackers leaves off, breathlessly detailing the rise to fame (and fall from grace) of two such nutty kids in the late 80s and 90s, John Carmack and John Romero. These “superstars”—if we accept Kushner’s rather streamlined hagiography—dreamed up, produced, and marketed to a ravenous community of joystick jockeys the first-person shooter or FPS. Offhandedly defined by Kushner as “paintball-like contests played from a first-person point of view” (x), FPSs are notoriously violent, fast-moving games in which players peer over the barrels of large weapons (grasped in their own avatarial “hands”) while racing about mazelike levels, locked in combat with opponents dreamed up by the computer or virtually present through local-area networks (LANs) or Internet connection. The latter play mode, called “deathmatch,” is the defining function of FPSs such as standard-bearers Quake 3: Arena and Unreal Tournament 2003. (Ironically, Carmack and Romero created deathmatch almost as an afterthought, an extra feature on their seminal 1993 Doom.) Deathmatch is also, of course, the (anti)social practice that brings FPSs in for condemnation by the likes of U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman, who argues in high-moral-panic mode that violent videogames produce violent kids—epitomized in school shootings such as the 1999 Columbine High murders. (Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, who orchestrated the killings, happened to be Doom fans.)

Thankfully, rather than focusing on the FPS’s controversial political status or debating the cultural effects of videogames, Kushner pitches Masters more intimately. Carmack and Romero’s collision of talents and personalities led to interpersonal firefights at least as entertaining as the digital melees engineered by their company, id Software. Tracing the duo’s evolution from colleagues to friends, then from competitors to enemies, and finally to battle-weary but apparently reconciled veterans of the game industry’s incandescent 90s, Kushner characterizes the team in language reminiscent of the Lennon-McCartney partnership: Carmack is the intense, driven genius (the “rocket scientist”), while Romero is the flamboyant, crowdpleasing publicity hound (the “rock star”).

These traits are made clear—perhaps reductively so—in the initial chapters, which join Romero at the age of 11 in 1979, toting up high scores on all the Asteroids arcade consoles in Rocklin, California. Romero went on to write his own games for the Apple II, publishing them in game magazines and eventually landing a job in the industry. Carmack, born in 1970, followed a similar path, though with a technological emphasis. Grasping the promise inherent in the primitive games of the early 80s, a time when arcades crumbled economically and the home-computer and console market had yet to take off, Carmack wanted to push the envelope and create immersive experiences to rival the holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

This theme runs throughout Masters of Doom: the sense that early gamers such as “the two Johns” were always looking toward the next great thing, whether it be a sequel to a prizewinning game or a world of networked subjectivity. Refreshingly, the book doesn’t bother to defend the importance of videogames; instead, it takes for granted that games are forerunners of virtual reality, fantasy spaces realized within computer hardware and populated by human beings in avatarial masquerade. Describing Romero’s love affair with the role-playing game Ultima, for example, Kushner writes confidently that “gamers overlooked the crudeness for what the games implied: a novelistic and participatory experience, a world” (11). Later on, he assesses an arcade game whose side-scrolling graphics broke new ground: “Compared with the other games in the arcade, Defender felt big, as if the player was living and breathing in a more expansive virtual space” (46).

And against the backdrop of the Internet and World Wide Web, Kushner—presumably emulating Carmack and Romero’s own fascination with the medium’s possibilities—repeatedly invokes the science-fiction constructs of William Gibson’s (1984) cyberspace and Neal Stephenson’s (1992) metaverse. Such lofty allusions have the effect of elevating Romero and Carmack’s “mission” while inoculating Masters against dismissal by a nation tired of get-rich-quick stories. The equation of videogames and cyberspace implies that game designers are, in fact, engineering future society (a claim also put forth by John Gaeta, special-effects supervisor of the Matrix films [1]), and that Carmack and Romero were the visionaries who laid the groundwork for this online world.

If you buy that philosophy, you’ll enjoy the book. Even if you don’t, you will get something out of the insider’s perspective on the game industry, which Kushner portrays as an analog of videogames themselves: colorful, loud, profane, cheerfully violent. The bulk of the book centers on id’s profitable series of FPSs: Wolfenstein 3DDoom, and Quake. Each game, along with its sequels and expansion packs, is presented as a risky undertaking, a dream of a product that might or might not find its audience. Each game, of course, turns out to be enormously popular, lending Masters the feel of a Broadway musical about underdog victories and overnight successes. Come on, kids, let’s put on a show!

Some will find this picture of software development disingenuous—hackers can’t all be scrappy outsiders—but it works well enough to fill 300 pages of fast-moving prose. And among the exuberance of all-night programming sessions, endless pizza deliveries, and the fleet of Ferraris so fetishized by Carmack and Romero, Masters of Doom casually outlines the emergence of a new business paradigm, one keyed to the breakneck rhythms of Moore’s Law. That maxim, coined in 1965, states that the power of microprocessors doubles every 18 months. For id, this meant that not just the outward design of games, but their underlying architecture, had to undergo constant reinvention. While Romero hyped each upcoming release (in terms that often landed him in trouble with the avid but skeptical gaming community), Carmack labored to produce software “engines” capable of rendering 3D graphics with unprecedented speed and realism. And each new version of the FPS encouraged, or forced, gamers to upgrade their computers in order to run the new software. At the same time, id’s practice of releasing its games as shareware (downloadable files whose first levels could be played for free, with the full version requiring purchase) cut distributors out of the circuit, amplifying the profits of developers.

The end result is that id’s games pushed the industry in specific directions. Cyberspace may not yet be here, but according to Kushner, the world of computing in 2003 would be radically different (and a lot less fun) if not for Carmack and Romero.

  1. In a Wired cover story on the Matrix sequels, Gaeta warned of the dangers posed by advanced image-manipulation techniques. “You have these paranoid films about the Matrix depicting how people are put in a mental prison by misusing this technology . . . maybe our technology will become the actual Matrix, and we have inadvertently spilled the vial of green shit out onto the planet.”

Gibson, W. (1984). Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books.
Levy, S. (1984: 1994). Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. New York and London: Penguin.
Silberman, S. (2003). “Matrix2.” Wired 11.05.
Stephenson, N. (1992). Snow Crash. New York: Bantam Books.


Back in January when I sent out my book manuscript, I had the weird sense of waving goodbye to a cruise ship I built myself, standing at the pier while this giant, white, overstuffed artifact bellied out to sea.

It was not the first time this particular ship had been launched. In August 2006 I printed out the whole thing, some 350 pages. This was after my dissertation defense but before I dropped off the text at the print shop in Bloomington where Indiana University dissertations are bound. Lots of other stuff was going on at the time—I was in the midst of packing for the move to Pennsylvania, my thoughts mostly focused on coming up with syllabi for the two courses I was contracted to teach at Swarthmore starting in the fall. But I took a moment, amid the mess of cardboard boxes and sorting stacks for the yard sale, to balance the fat block of pages in my hands, marveling that I had managed to produce such a thing.

About a year later I sent it out again, this time as a book proposal. I got polite notes back from two academic presses—saying, essentially, thanks but no thanks—and shelved the project until 2011 or so. It went out again at that point, and this time was met with a yes, just in time for my tenure case.

Then came the reader reports. Mostly positive, with a handful of suggestions for changes, they stopped me in my tracks; it would be almost four more years before I got around to patching holes, updating case studies, and clarifying ambiguities needed to clear the final hurdle.

I should explain, if it isn’t clear from the outline, that I am not a good writer. Process-wise, I mean. Faced with a task, I put it off; encouraged, I dig in my feet and work even more grudgingly. This goes deep with me, all the way back to childhood. Though I have, for the most part, achieved the level of wisdom that involves accepting myself as I am, procrastination is one of the traits I most want to change in myself. As soon as I get around to it.

Anyway, it turns out that publishing a book, at least a scholarly one, involves more than one goodbye; it’s less like Ilsa and Rick lingering heartlost in the fog than like dropping off a child at school, morning after morning. That’s probably the wrong metaphor here, because I adore my children, but have come to detest the book. Still, the other images that spring to mind—repeated skin biopsies, for instance—might express in a Cronenbergian way the connection between writing and excrescence, a putrefaction of words shed like skin dust, but they don’t capture the idea of an object consciously built. A model kit, seams puttied and sanded, paint sprayed and retouched, decals and weathering conscientiously applied. Doomed to show only flaws and mistakes in the eyes of its maker; to everyone else it’s probably, y’know, okay.

My book is looking more okay these days thanks to the copyeditors at NYU Press. I got the manuscript back for review, have been going through the chapters, reviewing changes. There are a few on every page, and I see the wisdom of every single one. That’s generally my response to being edited—gratitude. Harlan Ellison and a mob of similarly perpetually disgruntled writers would kick me out of the Tough Kids Club for saying so. You can find me over by the janitor’s closet, eating lunch with Strunk and White.


There’s nothing like a suddenly lost object to demonstrate the precarity of our systems for keeping order—the flimsiness of the illusion that the spaces we inhabit are at our mercy, rather than the other way around.

There are many sorts of object, of course, and many sorts of loss. I daily shed millions of dead skin cells without thinking about it, and it doesn’t trouble my world if a Lego block goes missing from the Tupperware footlocker where all our Lego pieces entropically end up. The absence I’m talking about is the shadow cast by a specific kind of item: it must be something so critical to daily function that I need it—at least need easy access to it—almost all the time; by the same token, its ubiquity as both physical item and psychic token must make it easy to take for granted. Glasses, keyring, wallet, phone, various iPods and iPads. Made almost invisible by ritualized use, these small but vital technologies don’t often vanish from the map. But when they do, they threaten to take the map with them.

This week I spent a disturbing and disorienting couple of days searching for my laptop, a silvery sylph of a MacBook Air, which did not disappear so much as slowly slip off my radar—not a jump cut but a slow dissolve. Like Pasteur’s germs, the loss became an official fact only retrospectively. First I had to shamble from spot to spot around the house to check all the places the MacBook tends to get left: the high shelf kids can’t get at, the table beside the wall outlet, under the couch, under the bed. Meanwhile my thoughts probed an alternative theory, treating the missing computer as a theft. Hadn’t I left my car unlocked, work case in the front seat plain for all to see, when I dropped my kids at school? It was only a few minutes. But how long would it have taken, really?

I did not like the feeling of these suspicions germinating and spreading vinelike through my view of the world. Too much of the U.S. is ensnared and immobilized in such thorny psychic tendrils. And just as the presidency is in a way the mass projection of a schizoid populace—a country whose constituent blocs have lost the ability to comprehend each other, an imagined community angry-drunk on its dark and fearful imaginings—my worries about some faceless thief are just a way of externalizing anxiety and disavowing my own responsibility for losing track of something valuable.

The computer finally turned up (isn’t it I who turned up? the laptop didn’t move) in my campus office. It was on a shelf at about shoulder height, a place where books belong. I had no memory of setting it there, but set it there I must have. So now my theoretical thief has become an inferred Bob.

That word: absentminded. Quick flash of Fred MacMurray and an infinitely receding four-dimensional array of old academics wearing one sock and polishing their glasses. A little past that tesseract of cliché is one very real person, my mother, whose memory loss has in recent years become profound. Because of her I suppose I watch my own slips and failings with a diagnostic eye, sifting random problems for systematic ones, signals in the noise that point to a larger noise in the signal.

The computer vanished the instant I put it somewhere it doesn’t usually go. What does that say about where the coordinates and position of any object reside? Is it all and only relational? Are there, in fact, only negative differences, dark matter? I think it’s less important to answer those unanswerables than to note how close they are to the surface, a magma of existential worry coursing under the brightness and rationality of waking life. Note it, remember it, honor it.

Limbo 4: Working for A Living

I have decided to engage these games as much as possible without resorting to cheat guides, walkthroughs, Let’s Plays, and so on; if I’m actually committed to progressing through a game in a series of short sessions, I ought to confront head-on those factors of duration and difficulty too often skipped in favor of easy, outsourced solutions.

Come to think of it, I have always been something of a cheater, guiltlessly ready to subvert the sanctity of the magic circle, or at least distend its ethical circumference. I remember at fifteen hunching over my Apple II+, studying the lines of BASIC that made up Sierra On-Line’s Softporn Adventure (1981), sifting the deep code of DATA statements for vocabulary items—“nipple,” “unhook,” “menage”—that would lubricate my path through the seamy hypertext. In 1996 a friend introduced me to another virtual labyrinth, iD’s 3D shooter Quake. He pulled a console down from the top of the screen, typed “NOCLIP” and “GOD MODE,” and showed me how to walk through walls, a floating unkillable angel of death holding all the guns and unlimited ammo.

I’ve never worried much about whether this kind of loosey-goosey fun compensates adequately for the pleasure it replaces—the more sober, committed, purist approach of playing the game as it was intended to be played. Yes, texts are machines that work independently of their authors, ergodic texts like videogames more than any. But there will always be value in engaging the text machine as an expression of its maker—particularly when the notion of “maker” is expanded beyond human agents to include objects and forces, actants institutional, technological, and historical.

Plus it is just fun to blunt-force my way through a problem, solving it in baby steps, experiencing first frustration, then a kind of humbling at the sorry limits of my skills and abilities, then a burst of so-there euphoria when I finally crack the damned thing. This kind of emotional slalom, which I associate with focused, patient, persistent work toward a larger goal, is not something I’ve had much practice with.


This image documents my victory over the two-weight puzzle. What you do is, you pull the first rope down between the gears, then jump down and run and climb on the cart that’s been positioned there, jump to the end of the retracting rope and pull it back down. Swing and leap onto the second rope, pull it down, and run beneath the weights before they get too low.

Full of confidence in my agency and effectiveness, I strode onward. Right into a situation where some kind of glowworm dropped onto my head and took over my movement so that I could only jump, run, or walk in the direction the worm was taking me. When it settled into my scalp with a waxy sizzle, there was a highly cinematic pullback with a bit of Vertigo zoom, a retreating axial gesture videogames have long used to transition into and out of cutscenes. Here the device is neatly deployed to signal a different compromise of agency, turning me into an avatar under the command of two competing sets of inputs.


Solving a puzzle first-thing lends an optimistic boost to a play session, and I practically danced through this one, ridding myself of the glowworm by enticing some hanging vampire slugs to nibble it off my noggin, then getting enmeshed in an elaborate mechanical conundrum that involved getting a huge machine to run in the background to generate electricity that makes a storm that makes it rain, then pulling an aqueduct down to fill up a basin in which a log floats, making it possible for me to leap to the other side. To run the machine I had to lure a little spiky hamster critter out by knocking loose some glowberries it hungered for … then get it in its way and chase it back to the machine where it takes up position in a hamster wheel, which I pull a lever to strike with a brake that starts the electrical display in the background. Got all that?

Great Wolf Lodge

Great Wolf Lodge, in the Poconos, has no real wolves and isn’t really a lodge. But it certainly is Great, at least for my wife and me and our two children. We were there for the third time last week, a getaway timed to coincide with family visiting from New Zealand and our elder son’s sixth birthday.

Kids and parents alike immediately grasp the genius of Great Wolf Lodge’s arrangement: a waterpark blended with a hotel, GWL makes it possible to walk between your room and a giant warehouse of gushing water, slides, and towers, wearing only sandals, swimsuit, and t-shirt. Leave your money and phone behind in the room, and don’t worry about a key: fastened around your wrist is a paper band, Tyvek-tough, with an RFID or something inside that allows you to swipe your way past closed doors. The place is laid out like a labyrinth, a rec-room designed by Escher, and navigating its plushly carpeted, dimly lit hallways, dodging packs of running children and nodding at fellow exhausted parents, I can’t help but think of The Shining and the prowling eye with which Kubrick mapped the Overlook.

Although we concur on the felicity of GWL’s operating premise, parents harbor an additional measure of respect and appreciation for the practicality of its closed system, a loop—not unlike the nautilus tunnels down which we bounce in inflated rafts, shrieking like we’re riding roller coasters—whose limits promise to keep everyone safe. The safety of Ouroborous. Safety from what? From the external world and its dangerous unpredictability, its menacing strangers, its natural threats. Our comfort is premised on apocalypse just beyond the border: like a bomb shelter, or Charlton Heston’s pad in The Omega Man, or the domed cities in Logan’s Run (a space whose sybaritic pleasures resonate with the waterpark’s ethos).

I realize there’s something (paradoxically) infantile about the paranoia inherent to parenting. Since my kids were born I have been unable to extricate my warm love of them from the cold fear of their destruction, illness, sadness. G. K. Chesterton wrote, “To love anything is to see it at once under lowering clouds of danger,” and indeed I have found that the psychic burden imposed by having dependents is so encompassing and unrelenting that to have it lifted, even for the span of a twenty-four-hour stay in a room that smells of chlorine, is like an out-of-body experience.

Our six-year-old appreciates the various wonders of the water park, but it is our three-year-old who is primally transfixed by pools, fountains, bubbles, buckets, splashes, and jets. He points out every vent and drain he sees. Having learned the word and general meaning of “hydraulic,” he asks if everything is hydraulic. But his engineer’s eye is married to a daredevil’s soul, and his favorite activity is fording the waves of the wave pool. Wearing his life vest, he pushes himself into the cresting foam, lets himself fall backwards, rolls so his face is underwater for seconds at a time. I hover, inches away, ready to grab and pull him upright, but he shouts “Let me go, Daddy!” So I stand back, watching with the floating patience of a steadicam, flexing my hands and twisting my body in sympathetic mirror of my boy’s actions, as though this is a videogame, I the player, he the avatar.

Limbo 3: Fatigue and Alienation

One hour and twenty minutes of playtime in, I’m souring of Limbo’s world; or maybe it is the experience I find tiring and tedious. Watching my character work its way along the screen’s X axis is like watching an ant in an ant farm, trapped in sandy tunnels between two sheets of glass. Over and over I thud into some new nasty trap and die until I figure it out. This was the first session where I racked mental focus from Limbo’s gorgeous, auroral grays and blacks, becoming conscious instead of its bluntly punishing rhythms. In the words of a former student, the game’s mechanic started to stick out.

My alienation might also stem from my first encounter with destructive forces embodied not in sharp-edged objects, unjumpable gaps, or giant hairy spiders, but human beings like myself—a gang of imps shot blew darts at me, chasing me back along my path until I was able to crush them between two stomping hammers. (It took about six deaths to learn the correct sequence and timing of jumps to bring about this result.) Discovering that this already unpleasant place had characters in it working to make things even worse was mildly angering, and I was pleased to smash the motherfuckers. I suspect I have wandered into a Lord of the Flies situation, and I have never had any illusions that in such a pecking order I would be anywhere besides the base. I wish we could all get along, but failing that, I will survive by any means necessary.

A central problem of game design is the calibration of challenge and skill, the parceling out puzzles and obstacles poised just slightly ahead of the player’s growing repertoire of game-specific talents and tools. It is essentially a pedagogical process in which each test is also a lesson that feeds into the next incremental advance. Videogame as tutor code, by turns irritating and inspiring. Get the mix wrong and the game is boringly easy, or paralyzingly difficult.

But even as I pin my reaction on the game, I realize that local, player-side effects are conditioning my response. I ended today’s session in the middle of a puzzle I can’t yet crack, a baroque interrelation of pull cords, turning gears, two large blocks whose lifting and falling is key to safe passage. There’s a push cart I haven’t figured out how to use, although it is reassuring to trust in the parsimony evident throughout Limbo so far: if it isn’t important to the solution, it wouldn’t be there.



When I told my mother-in-law that I intended to remain mindful throughout the process of my first colonoscopy, she said, “Take notes.” I think there was a wink in her voice, but in truth, engaging in careful observation and taking notes seems entirely appropriate to things like this: interruptions of somatic routine so potently dramatic they leave you, in Brechtian fashion, estranged and resensitized to the basic conditions of existence. You know: the existence where “you” are just a language virus with delusions of self that grew inside the complex brain of a hyperselected primate body that is itself a feat of natural evolutionary engineering—a body that will always remain, though you inhabit it every day like a complacent monarch riding in the cushioned control dome of some steampunk mecha, profoundly beyond your limited ken.

Of course, the ken I speak of is my own. In medical matters I am the ignorant beneficiary of knowledges, sciences, and skills practiced by my intellectual betters. I’m OK with that. One facet of any “procedure” is the way it enlists you in a sequence you have not authored and in most cases do not fully grasp (assuming you are in the hands of experts whose value is precisely the rarity of their depth of training). Everything was made simple for me, the poor shlub with the colon in need of scrutiny. The doctor gave a referral, CVS provided prescription medicine (a white paper sack the intimidating size of a Wendy’s bag), the endoscopy clinic called a week beforehand with instructions, a website took my medical history. By the time my wife dropped me off at the clinic and the automated doors opened for me and I handed over my ID and insurance cards, I was as locked into my path as a pinball in its spring-loaded launch bay, ready to be plungered into the careening, strobing field of play.

Given the nature of colonoscopies, I guess I shouldn’t be talking about getting “plungered.” My point is that I see phenomena like this as straddling the worlds of perfect order and mad chaos. It is a test, and if I pass, I get to go back to life as usual—life lived in happy ignorance of the body’s magical self-maintaining machinery and its constant potential for catastrophic breakdown. If I don’t pass, if they find something, I get the prize of a new and different future, one of which I am destined to remain acutely, painfully, fearfully conscious. Again, formalism.

Limbo 2: Let’s Talk About Spiders


So far they are about the only living thing that has responded to my presence, and they do so in a deterministic way that mirrors the relentlessness of a natural predator in the implacability of the code driving its digital twin. After getting impaled by the spiders’ stabbing legs oh, a dozen or so times, I have grown affectionately accustomed to these bristly black blobs and their quickly crawling ways. During one hair-raising phase I was lifted into a web and spun into a cocoon, only to break free and hop away like a sperm bouncing madly on its tail—a terrifying intimacy after which the spiders seem as inevitable as family. By the end of my third session we were on such familiar terms with each other I was yanking off a wounded spider’s legs and rolling its body like a boulder to solve a climbing problem.


I’m less sure what to make of the other “kids” sharing this tenebrous gameworld with me. There’s more than one of them, and they frequent the frame’s edges, slipping out of view as soon as I see them. Their bodies litter the background, suggesting that their role in this little cosmos is not simply to tantalize and torment; they, in turn, are tormented.


It’s increasingly clear that I am in a world of physics puzzles—something like Angry Birds—whose mechanics, along with its mise-en-scene, invoke a larger bleakness at the heart of videogaming’s appetite for corporeal destruction. To play this platformer, it seems to say, is to be neither dead nor alive but suspended between the two, pushing along by sheer instinct through a landscape that (A) kills and resurrects you repeatedly and (B) doesn’t give a goddamn.

Limbo 1: Murnau’s Forest


I’ve only been playing Limbo for a little while—this post covers two twenty-minute blocks of gametime—but already I am getting used to moments like this one, when I encounter a scene that brings me to a startled halt, gazing at some vision that is simultaneously horrible and beautiful. I stare (or rather, I regard my avatar as it stares with its bright, empty eyes) and take the measure of the mise-en-scene, which so niftily merges the cinematic with the algorithmic. Seen as a frame of film, the chiaroscuro layers of this misty, monochrome forest recall F. W. Murnau and Jean Cocteau, or the multiplanar woods in classical Disney features: Bambi, Snow White. Engaged as a juncture in a videogame, by contrast, the little diorama explicitly presents itself as a puzzle to be solved, an experiential bottleneck to the story’s unfolding. I know I can stand here forever if I choose.

I guess what I’m saying is I like Limbo’s pauses, the aporia that precede its epiphanies. The equilibrium they provide acts as an antidote to the relentless, headlong run-and-gun that typifies other games I play—the 2016 Doom most recently—as does the game’s nearly silent soundscape of drifting winds, rustling leaves, creaking chains, and buzzing flies.

I also like the frequency with which the game kills me. Every obstacle that impedes my rightward progress through this platformer’s sidescrolling world comes with a lesson in the form of a tiny death that will repeat until the problem’s solution has been learned: Falling on spikes will kill you, so jump over them. You will drown if your head goes underwater, so find a boat or a floating log. Some lessons are functional, the rudimentary physics of manipulation: Ropes can be climbed and swung on. Objects can be pushed and pulled. Some lessons are accidental and purely felicitous: Hold down the right- and up-arrow keys and you will skip childlike through the blowing grass. I care very little about my in-game puppet, whose dopey, compliant body reminds me of the kids savaged in Billy’s Balloon (Don Hertzfeldt, 1998). I drop it off trees and throw it into bear traps just to hear the meaty squish of its annihilation.

But I keep moving forward. After a period of isolation, alone except for the occasional rotting corpse, I’m starting to encounter other life: a giant, spear-legged spider. Another child like myself, running off as I approach. And every so often I crunch over a glowing egg and a score pops up. These bread crumbs, I surmise, will mark my progress through Limbo. When I shell out to the menu, I note that I have completed 11 “chapters” out of 40 or so.