Sunday, May 23, 2010

Melancholy as madness

Whenever I hear Paranoid Android by Radiohead, I'm reminded of the Weeping Gorilla from Alan Moore's Promethea, saying, "Can we hear that Radiohead track once more?"  When I think of Promethea, I think of Dawn, by Joseph Michael Linsner, which I discovered around the same time.  Whenever I think of Dawn, I think of Luis Royo.  Geiger, Freud, Shakespeare, George Lucas In Love.  The list goes on.  Paranoid Android is also the ending song for Ergo Proxy.  Witch Hunter Robin, one of my friends, a spaceship game design, Melbourne.  Tripod did a particularly poignant acapella cover of it in one of their live shows.  Jonathon Coulton, World of Warcraft, skiing, my parents.  Is it any wonder I get confused?

Of course, this happens for everyone, I imagine.  One thought leads to another, and by the end of a six-minute song, you've been through so many thoughts and memories that you're somewhere completely different, and that song is now associated with that end point and all of the steps in between.  Fallout 3 is inextricably linked with The Gruen Transfer.  Carl Jung's The Red Book is linked with rainbows in a clear sky and warm, freshly-iced cupcakes.  And everything is, at some point, linked with my family.

I know there have been countless studies of contextuality.  But short of writing stream of consciousness, is there any way we, as writers, could bring this feeling of familiar ground to our readers?  The player can associate - for example, in Alan Wake the descent of the ravens is always preceded by a particular sound.  Then, when the sound happens at a later date, in a different place, or at a different pitch, that familiar feeling of dread arises. What I'm after is the sense of exploration I felt upon sneaking into my grandfather's workshop, seeing the tiny watch parts littered across the bench and wondering if they were magic.  The feeling of exultation and longing when I watched The Little Mermaid for the first time.  The first time something really, truly and deeply hurt.

Of course, everyone's experiences are different.  That's the basis of our personalities.  Bioshock 2 managed to invoke that childhood glow, and to good effect, in the section where you play as a Little Sister.  No game has yet created in me the feeling of Ariel's longing to be free, possibly because the player is rarely trapped.  Planescape: Torment broke my heart.

This is the basis of inkblot tests, which Heavy Rain uses to good effect.  The idea that things are vaguely related is, I've been told, the basis of true surrealism.  That tenuous link that we recognise instinctively, yet don't quite understand, is what both intrigues and dismays us.  Alan Wake's link between the manuscript and the future in-game provides an irresistible backdrop for the inevitable approach of events we would rather avoid.  The link is clear - too clear - and we need only wait.

We spend a lot of our time waiting, thinking, feeling.  All the time we're forging indelible links between unassociated pieces of data.  This tree and that person, this smell with those tears.  Synaesthetes simply display a more visible version of what we all do, all the time.  Seeing the pattern in these things could be described as the first hint of madness.

This is all Alan Wake talking.  The Darkness comes for us, and only the light will allow us to resist, and it is fleeting and pale.  With every synapse connected to another, do we lose a shred of our potential, or take another step toward becoming something greater?

Is the glass half-empty or half-full?  And, more importantly, did you remember to charge your torch batteries?

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