The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, January 18, 2021

[0/3]: House

After the flood, what ideal endures? An empty one with potential to someday be filled again.

Part [0/3] of 2

An epilogue written a year before the main text. Major spoilers for Homestuck and Kentucky Route Zero, Gothic Marxism.


When the flood wipes out everything else, 5 Dogwood Drive stays standing.

Of course, 5 Dogwood Drive is a big empty box, a frame of a house with Romanesque steps at the front and back leading up to the gaping empty space. It looks like concrete, solid poured, like a modernist sculpture of a house. According to town residents the building just showed up, and no one really knows who built it or what it's for. As an object, its origins and destiny are obscure and seem to defy easy causality.

In that sense, the house is something like the jujus of Homestuck. Objects of significant power, jujus lack an origin point, looping back on themselves in time with no beginning or end. The same object might loop through multiple universes and timelines only to wind up back where it entered the plot to begin with. These objects are cosmically robust. They survive because... they must, in order to exist in the first place.

There's an object sort of like this in the game Kentucky Route Zero, where 5 Dogwood Drive can be found. Early on, playing as delivery driver Conway on a quest to make one last delivery to the address in question, you venture into the basement of a gas station and encounter a ghostly tabletop gaming session. You can't interact with the players, Bob, Emily, and Ben, but you can find a small mystical glowing object on the ground. It turns out to be a glow in the dark 20 sided die.

You can, if you wish, put it into Conway's jacket pocket.

Conway is trying to make his very last delivery for the dying antiques business he works for. As he travels he encounters a number of other characters--accumulates them, really. They're all trying to find their way to the Zero, Kentucky Route Zero, the highway the five act game is named after. You become a kind of parade of lost souls. Along the way, you learn how the world beat the characters down. Sometimes during the trip, they accumulate more damage.

Conway is injured early in act 1, and by act 3 has gotten into some real trouble. To restore his leg to working condition, he goes into medical debt, bad debt. His leg is replaced by a glowing skeletal limb. Soon he is further in the hole, his alcoholism, debt, and hopelessness leading him into the clutches of a sinister whisky producing corporation that also I guess moonlights as a predatory loan company? Sounds about right. Visiting the distillery, we see the endpoint of Conway's skeletonization: all of the workers in the distillery are also skeletons, and carry their own debt to the company.

By the time act 4 rolls around, Shannon Marquez, owner of a failing electronics repair store, has inherited Conway's jacket and much of the main character duties. Eventually, she inherits his quest for Dogwood Drive. Playing as Shannon, you turn your back on Conway for a few minutes to talk to one of the other shadowy denizens of the river Echo. When you turn back, he is simply gone, one of three indistinguishable skeletons floating on down the underground river. It's a moment of devastating abruptness and grief. Shannon has nothing else to do but go on to the end of the Echo with the remaining companions, to bring the delivery to its end.

What they find on the surface is the aftermath of a terrible flood. The town's two resident horses are dead, drowned. Most of the people are gone already, their homes washed out. In fact, many had already left. The place has layer upon layer of tragedy, and, as you wander the space as an inquisitive cat listening in on conversations, you can encounter the ghosts of past events and come to understand this place a little better.

In one such encounter, Shannon can talk to Bob, Emily, and Ben, and give them a glowing die that they think will be perfect for a game they want to play together.

The trio always appeared as ghosts in the game but this loop renders the nature of their ghostliness kind of weird and slippery. In Derrida's Specters of Marx, this kind of thing happens often. Ghosts are entities that bridge the gap between the present and the un-graspable non-present. The trio might appear not as ghosts of the past but as ghosts of the future.

Time loops make me twitchy and nervous. I've always been uncomfortable with fate, because if everything is predestined, nothing can change, perhaps nothing can improve. This is why the demiurge of Homestuck, the ultimate villain, is miserable Reddit chud shitlord of time, Lord English. All of the story exists to bring him into being and once he exists in the future he spreads through the whole timeline to ensure his own apotheosis. He is, infamously, already here. And wow it sucks. This is the grim aspect of the jujus and their time loops in Homestuck. They might be occasionally useful to the players in their fight but ultimately are a symbol of how little power they really have. Everything has to go exactly as planned.

These loops represent the horror of what Walter Benjamin calls homogeneous time, the time of historians who write to flatter the powerful. Time in this historical narrative is an unbroken continuum which hey, on the bright side, might even make an arc that bends toward justice! Or maybe not. Either way, there's just an order to the world, a teleology, and you can't do shit about it. In that homogeneous time the best you can do is keep your head down and hope that the establishment will throw you a bone from time to time. The rulers of not just space but time have not and will not cease to be victorious.

Is this the lesson of Dogwood Drive? So much of your time spent there involves learning about various failed utopian attempts, communities gone maddeningly wrong, violence against those who tried to make a difference. One of the main historical storylines you uncover in Act 5 follows a commune that eventually falls apart as individuals gain outsized power. And the rest of the game has countless other examples of failed projects and ideals shattered against the grim rocks of capitalism and above all debt. The most grueling section for me was in Act 3, which features a group of grad students toiling seemingly endlessly over a rotting supercomputer Xanadu, built to run advanced literary text adventures but ultimately collapsing under its own weight. It hit a little close to home! And it can all start to feel a little debilitating. Are we just doomed to repeat the same loops over and over?

That's not... necessarily the case in Homestuck. There's one great big exception to the pattern of jujus: the white House logo. Well, I say white. More properly, it's blank. When John reaches his hand inside it, it is intangible, and the same color as the background of the web page. It is less an object than a hole to be filled, and it has multiple reflections through the story. In the final moments of the comic, Caliborn, the little 4chan shithead who will become Lord English, gains the artifact, which he will use to trap his enemies. Eventually, they will emerge to defeat him. Simultaneously, the heroes of the story approach the giant megalithic version of the house logo that leads out of the game, out of the universe, into the new world they created. The object flips and glows white, the white of an empty page. An incalculable distance away, the artifact is activated to finally act as a weapon against Lord English and slams down in the dust of the wasteland of the afterlife as... another megalithic glowing white structure.

In each, a door appears. And it opens.

What makes this juju remarkable is that it has a power like nothing else in Homestuck: the power to break free from the loops that chain the characters. When John impulsively reaches into the artifact he comes untethered from the Alpha Timeline. This allows the characters to escape their universe without actually filling in the loop where they're captured by Caliborn and emerged later as a weapon against Lord English. In one post canon story, we do see that happen. In countless other equally valid realities, we don't. The future in other words is no longer set in stone. They have escaped homogeneous time.

That's the theory, at least. In practice, even the most radical art rests on the foundations of its material conditions, the conditions of capitalism with all its shady dealing, scrabbling for survival, internal power struggles, and the division of labor that will always put bosses at odds with workers. Characters might escape homogeneous time, but the franchise and its production have a much more difficult time. Anything that exists in the material world does, I guess. Nothing is immune to decay, least of all works of art or franchises built around them. The more franchise you have, in fact, the more prone to becoming a flood-damaged and moldering shell of whatever people saw in it to begin with. Movements, too, falter and fail more often than not. They fall apart, are betrayed from without or within, or simply crushed, often with casual brutality, by the powers that be. There is no magic mantra or ideal message or work of art with purified politics that can simply fork the lightning of lasting revolution.

There might be a possibility of laying foundations, though. When the flood comes, the company houses of Dogwood Drive are washed away. They were built cheaply and indifferently, not on any sort of grand ideal but simply because it was part of a broader engine of squeezing labor out of people. They couldn't resist the tide. But older remnants of the town's utopian past remain. The buildings of the old commune withstood the tide better than the company houses, though ultimately they were still damaged. 

Most stable is the structure of the blank house.

The water can flow right through it because it is less a structure than a hole to be filled. And the various characters immediately imagine filling it. The order for antiques doesn't seem to go to anyone, just this big notion of a house, so that's where they put them. But as they do, they fantasize about what it might be. A workshop for Shannon. A music venue for transgender androids Junebug and Johnny. Each character that decides to remain in the town ultimately help shape the nature of the house.

Both Homestuck and Kentucky Route Zero present a house image, but it's a notional one, capable of surviving the damage of the world and even becoming a place of escape, rebuilding, and fighting back, because it's not yet filled, still a notion rather than a reality. This also lets it be passed on, like the die. Or not: you can after all choose not to pick up the glowing die as Conway. I'm genuinely not sure what happens then. It's not the timeline I picked. That fact is exciting. There are possibilities I didn't take! The slow slide of Conway is an inevitability and in fact you're forced to take the final fateful drink that binds him in debt. But not everything in this world is like that, not everything is inevitable tragedy, just as there are in theory multiple valid timelines where John and his friends don't die fighting Lord English.

In this context the glowing game piece feels more like a small emblem of connection between these people brought together by disaster. It's no longer a symbol of inevitability but the unseen ways our actions can bond us. It's these connections that whoever decides to remain and rebuild Dogwood Drive will rely on, and these connections that are essential to the success or failure of the kids after they escape their old universe in Homestuck.

And the House? The house is an idea of an ideal, something that lasts even when the physical structures we've built fail us. Benjamin says they are always present in the struggle... Humor, joy, creativity. Gay shit. Filling in that space... Well, that's vulnerable. That's risky. You can see what happens to all the houses with four real walls! Start thinking like that and it's easy to convince yourself to never take an action at all. It would be better if there wasn't a hope right now of a real challenge to greed and bigotry and the broken systems of our world, because if that challenge only existed in our minds, in our media criticism articles, in academia and small leftist organization meetings, we would never have to risk it all being washed away in the flood. And it will be. Again and again and again. "This enemy has not ceased to be victorious." From this perspective it would be better not to write at all than to see the characters we've come to care so much about fail in their goal to make a better world. Or maybe worst of all, to see the house filled with ideological tat, the philosophical equivalent of a hoarder filling his house with funko pops of superhero characters. Best to keep things vague!

But the symbol only has meaning if it is in some way filled, if we take the risk and go through the door. It is a promise, but one that paradoxically can only mean anything, can only exist at all, if the empty space it represents is filled, by us, or by someone that comes after us, even though filling it leaves us inevitably open to ruination. The house symbols are the promise that a better world is possible. And they're beautiful while they are empty, because while they are empty they can survive, and forever call into question the triumph of the victors with the possibility of being filled.

Can we make them full?

This Has Been

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