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.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

A Multiverse Around The Corner (Where Your Dead Friends Live)

Isn't it weird how many stories lately feature villains trying to tap into alternate or simulated realities to reunite with loved ones? Let's take a tour of this multiverse full of dead relatives and what they have to say about our cultural moment.

There's a weird proliferation of media about the specific desire to travel to an alternate timeline or simulated reality to retrieve a dead loved one. Reuniting with the family whose deaths motivates Kingpin to start messing with the alternate realities of the titular Spiderverse, for instance. The antagonist of the Alex Garland miniseries DEVS is attempting to create a perfect computer simulation of reality in order to reunite with the family he also lost in a car accident, and he's willing to use the predictive powers of his simulation as a tactical advantage to protect his simulated world by any means necessary. Furthermore, hopping to another timeline is the plan of the arch villain of Mr Robot, with the added uncomfortable twist of her being a closeted Chinese trans woman seeking a world where she was able to marry her lover, preventing his suicide. Meanwhile, the villain of Star Trek Discovery season 4 is willing to start a civilization-ending conflict with an advanced species to get to a "paradise" universe with his maybe? dead? friend (it's left a little ambiguous).

When such a plot is not outright villainous it seems to be decidedly misguided. Like Cedric Diggory's resurrection in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child! There, when some time traveling teens prevent his death, he becomes a fascist due to... coming in second in one sporting event, and causes the victory of the supreme evil of the setting. Leaving aside the fascinating revelation that coming in second place in one (1) sporting event is, in dear Joanne's mind, a plausible reason for becoming a raving Nazi, gang I'm starting to think that Rowling might in fact just be kind of a dogshit writer. I mean my god the plot summary for this play is just sheer derangement the whole way through and also I guess the play is FIVE HOURS LONG? I've also heard that some part of the new movies involves making sure Hitler still comes to power but I couldn't verify this because search engines don't work anymore, the internet is overflowing with fawning garbage and algorithmic clickbait, and searching for information about this franchise for more than ten minutes makes me want to jump to an alternate reality where I'M dead.

And, of course, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe flails for purchase after completely squandering their greatest antagonist, Thanos, the Multiverse and alternate realities become increasingly central, as though the franchise desperately seeks any way out of the maze of dead ends they've gradually walled themselves into. I think maybe the earliest instance of this, perhaps predictably, emerged from the existential flailing of Agents of SHIELD. I don't remember much of season 4 (it was bad) but like DEVS it employs a computer simulation alternate reality, one that I guess is the result of Agent May not killing a child that she previously executed in her Tragic Backstory. HYDRA rules the world in this reality, so that's another vote for "if you try to prevent children from dying, fascism wins." Neat. What I DO remember of this season is that they made my special boy Fitz into a dapper Nazi (this was in vogue in 2017 if you recall). Now, Fitz had spent some time previously with a neurological disability that made it difficult for him to express himself verbally; this gradually just sort of... dissipated after a while. I can only conclude the writers found it easier to imagine a world where Fitz was a fascist, than one in which they had to keep writing him as disabled.

Agents of SHIELD largely has proven the model for the sort of finesse and care with which the MCU set out to explore the multiverse.

Leaving aside the quality of any individual example, the proliferation of the trope feels significant, and a little eerie in the face of, bluntly, increasing incidences of mass death. It feels like we are in a moment culturally when a bunch of people in Hollywood independently took a gander at the world and said to themselves, "what the people need to hear, as a message, is that wanting a version of reality where your loved ones aren't dead is fundamentally villainous". Maybe sympathetically villainous, they mused, but villainous nevertheless. Such a quest is bound to drive you to madness, criminality, homicidal machinations, intergalactic war, the triumph of fascism, and even acts of violence against property.

I'm not sure these stories are particularly interested in this from a speculative fiction standpoint. In Discovery and Mr Robot, it's never in point of fact clear that the technology even... works? Or is anything other than a character's particular pipe dream? The point seems to be a commentary--a rather moralizing one--or perhaps simply an unexamined assumption about the psychology of people who can't "let go" of grief.

There's an implicit conservativism in this though, even a kind of secular Calvinism. A belief that the universe could only really be one particular way. What are the knock on effects of this? It feels notable that a lot of the deaths are accidental. There's "no one to blame". How convenient. If the world simply is the way it is, that's sort of handy, isn't it, for anyone who happens to hold power in that world or timeline. A car crash, for example, is something that just... happens, and questions about, say, the dependence on individual transportation, the resistance to traffic calming features in neighborhoods, lack of public transit, homicidal disregard for the lives of pedestrians on the part of everyone from drivers to politicians to cops... in a sense if you think about it, asking questions about those things is sort of like trying to make the world something other than what it is, to radically upend society... in just the way a *villain* would.

Maybe the weirdest thing about alternate timeline media right now is the switch in its narrative convictions. The ultimate example is surely It's A Wonderful Life, whose whole premise is "let's go to an alternate timeline where this character was dead--oops, turns out it sucks!" I suppose the broadly applicable message is "don't kill yourself, cause you can't necessarily see the good you've done or might do in the world." Surely the affirmation in this message contributed to its many copies and parodies over the years.

To pick one more contemporary example, Doctor Who's companion Donna Noble experiences her own version of the trope late in her season. For an entire episode, she's banished to a version of reality where she listened to her mom's negging, gave up on herself, and sank into a life of complacent mediocrity. Unfortunately, it's precisely her hardheadedness that makes her such a good companion to the Doctor, someone capable of telling him to *stop* before he gets himself killed. Without her there at his side, he dies, and England slides into a fascist nightmare.

She gets stuck in our timeline, in other words.

The weird thing about this, of course, is that yesterday's "bad timeline" can simply become today's new status quo in need of defending. The proverbial frog gets proverbially boiled on a broad pop cultural scale. Moreover, isn't there something kind of rotten at the heart of the new permutation of the narrative? Once the message might have been that even someone like George Bailey or a kinda clocky, loud, bordering on middle aged woman like Donna might contribute something fundamental to keeping autocrats and fascists from ruling with impunity. Now, we have to take the long view and accept that a few kids might have to die here or there to maintain the proper tension on the cables holding up the moral arc of history.

It's only through the careful application of this nebulous long view that Scarlet Witch in Multiverse of Madness looks like anything other than sympathetic. Well, that and the careful application of Cartoonish Evil--she's trying to suck the ability to move to alternate timelines freely out of a cardboard cutout of the character America Chavez. Also she's using it's-the-Necronomicon-but-we-trademarked-it to bounce around the Multiverse by taking over the bodies of her alternate selves.

These careful applications of Cartoonish Evil helpfully counterbalance the simple fact that she wants to find and inhabit a timeline where her children are still alive. Apparently they existed in this reality in Wandavision, which I did not watch, but which I gather was a kind of giant fantasy world she dreamed up where Vision was still alive. Why are her kids alive and real in other realities when they were "just" a magical projection in this one? That seems weird. Doesn't that suggest that there was some "realness" attribute to the kids and Vision inside her projection, one that would imply blowing up the fantasy world killed all three real people? For the "greater good"?

I'm sure there's something I'm missing here, due both to not watching it (it looked boring and try-hard) and due to the fundamental moral defects in my character. I'm sure that's also why it's ok when Strange uses the-Necronomicon-but-proprietary to dream walk into his alternate self's corpse to do battle across dimensions. Don't get me wrong, I love this sequence. The shambling zombie corpse of Stephen Strange wearing a cloak of the skeletal wraiths of the damned *whips ass*. But Scarlet Witch is surely right to immediately call him a hypocrite! The film can't seem to make its mind whether the ends justify the means, though it keeps waving towards some commentary on it with Stephen. It feels an awful lot like the ends justify the means so long as it's the designated protagonist doing it. Ah there's that good old protagonist centered morality! It's been a minute.

If morality spins around the axis of Strange's ego, it might be because he fights for the status quo, whereas Scarlet Witch threatens to... I don't know, unlock the "power of the Multiverse"? People keep saying "the multiverse is dangerous", which Sarah noted is like saying gravity is dangerous. It's surely just, like, a thing, isn't it? Maybe what makes it so dangerous is the bare glimpse we see of alternatives: America does get a line in about how weird it is that you have to pay for food in our dimension. Huh!

Pillar of Garbage has a whole video on the broader concept of multiversality that takes particular aim at the strange sameness of parallel worlds within both this film and everyone's darling, Everything Everywhere All At Once. The video notes that despite the apparent premise of "anything is possible across these parallel realities", recent multiverse stories nevertheless "content themselves with superficial difference, masking an underlying sameness." Across the multiverse, basically capitalist order reigns, even when people have hot dog fingers.

There's certainly something almost poignant in the revelation that Stephen Strange is the same arrogant asshole across all realities, the same guy willing to sacrifice others for the "greater good" and meddle with powers that lead him to the cursed fate of "having a really really bad cgi eye copypasted onto his forehead". It feels similar to the diluted and thin version of Spiderverse that we get in Spider Man: Homeward Bound Lost In San Francisco, which instead of presenting a myriad of spider people presents... three versions of Peter Parker. The premise of Spiderverse was that anyone could see themselves in the character. Meanwhile, grotesquely, in No Home For Old Spiders Men the (black) villain Electro specifically laments that there's "got to be some universe with a black Spiderman". Multiverse of Madness extends this even further to fill the Multiverse with different versions of all your same heroes, vaguely palette swapped around so this time Captain America is British and a woman. But Steven is always a sad divorced guy, always tempted by power. The Multiverse turns out to not be full of madness at all but full of pretty much the same shit. Over. And over. And over.

This suggests that even before any moral compromise on the part of a character like Scarlet Witch, her quest is already quixotic. The texture of the narrative itself, the guiding force of the multiverse, pulls everything back towards the status quo. Don't get any big ideas. They're not gonna happen. You'll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking.

Let's spare a few thoughts to Enter the Spiderverse for a second, a film that in many ways set off the current trend toward the multiversal and, of course, has a villain questing after a lost loved one.

While I'm unnerved by the whole *trend* towards this trope, I want to give Spiderverse a bit more sympathy, if only because I think there is a point to the film's juxtapositions. Kingpin's family dies as a result of his feuding with Spiderman, and he responds by murdering a bunch more people to try and get them back. The fact that he's given an entire backstory motivation flashback invites a direct parallel to the various spiders: in all of their backstories, they too lose someone they care about. An inability to save everyone--even those they care most about--is the defining trauma of a spider person. They respond by doubling down on their need to take responsibility for the power they've been given.

From this perspective, Spiderverse feels like it turns some of the logic of this trope, as it's increasingly instantiated, on its head. Kingpin's actions seem more reactionary here, a desperate attempt to reconstruct a lost reality rather than change for the better. Unlike Wanda, who's just sort of the narrative's punching bag, he fucks up and consciously decides that he will bend reality itself in order to not have to learn a thing. Meanwhile, the whole point of the film is that anyone in the audience could "put on the mask" and be heroic.

If one of the hallmarks of this emerging trope is its fatalism, Spiderverse stands at its genesis, already playing with the terms.

Of all these stories, the one most interested in both addressing fatalism head on as theme, and exploring the alternate reality where a loved one waits as actual speculative fiction, is probably DEVS, which is fixated on questions of whether the universe is rigidly deterministic or not. It's of central concern to the antagonist, the owner of DEVS, both because the deterministic model he uses allows him to predict the actions of the protagonists, and because it's existentially important to his quest. After all, if the universe isn't deterministic, how will he know for certain that he's transplanting himself into the "right" simulated reality with his "true" wife and child? 

There's one moment that stuck with me from the show. A boy, Lyndon, one of the DEVS research team, has been excommunicated for insisting on the many worlds hypothesis as the only viable underpinning of the simulation, as opposed to the antagonist's strictly mechanistic viewpoint. Lyndon is presented with a wager to get his life's work back: stand on the top of Crystal Springs Dam. In some realities, he will fall, and simply die. In the realities where he doesn't, he can have his job back.

He must put his faith in the many worlds hypothesis.

We next see a slow pan up the exterior of the dam. Repeatedly, we see his flailing body falling towards his death. Glosses and summaries of the episode typically conclude that in "our timeline" he fell. I disagree. I think the repeated image, whether intentional or not, suggests something more astonishing and chilling: in *every* timeline he fell. There was no timeline where a version of Lyndon was both foolhardy enough to take the wager, and capable of keeping his balance long enough to survive it.

One might even suggest that in the timelines where he could have... he was probably pushed anyway.

It's a fascinating notion because it reveals the rigged game for what it is: something someone else with power determined with the expectation of getting a predetermined result. The alternate realities are a kind of smoke screen for the harm being done in this one. It makes me think of Anton Chigurh and his stupid fucking coin toss in No Country for Old Men. The most significant moment to me in the film is the character Carla Jean facing down his stupid coin toss for her life. He suggests that he is leaving it up to the universe whether she will live or die. She rejects this simply: "The coin don't have no say. It's just you."

Let me posit a hypothetical: what if everyone making kinda boring tv shows and movies that are all about how we shouldn't disturb the status quo actually like what they're doing? Imagine a world where that was the case. You'd probably want to make it so it was hard for people from marginalized and especially working class backgrounds to break into the industry, and you'd want things pretty uncompetitive so that there wasn't much chance for disruption. Basically, it'd be helpful, for this world, if it was possible to maintain The Good Life, while still thinking of oneself as an Artist, by simply telling your bosses what they want to hear.

I think it would be tempting to blame such a world on ideological failings, on "capitalist realism" infecting everyone for example. But in such a dimension it would be so difficult for anyone with an outsider or critical perspective on the world to become a director or showrunner or script writer, those people wouldn't need to be taught to think in "capitalist realism". And the people with a voice, well, they wouldn't have gotten where they were if they weren't already the perfect fit for the job.

Everyone would fall into their proper place, as though by fate.

In a universe next door, of course, this sort of metaphor we've been poking at might take on a different character, one more like The Matrix Resurrections, a film primarily about two people separated by death and revived in a computer simulation reaching out for each other even in the face of opposition from the universe itself. In this film the metaphor, and the refusal of Trinity and Neo to accept each others' loss, represents a refusal to accept the ordering of a society that would keep them separated.

This culminates, in fact, in Trinity cyber-divorcing her cyber-family. It's an act of astonishing selfishness. It rules. It is in fact highlighted, just in case you missed the fucking point, by the villain of the film and present demiurge of the Matrix remarking, sardonically, "women used to be so much easier to control." Let's not get too far into the weeds on this one, but the narrative that gay and trans people leave their spouses "widowed" is still quite prevalent. That feels relevant to mention here. The film, in the best tradition of the series as a whole, layers its metaphors so that the separation of death parallels structures of patriarchal control in society, systems that keep us trapped in jobs we hate, marriages that are unfulfilling, and even genders that stifle our souls.

Well, and now we're back where I always seem to wind up, with the queer gnostic and cosmically revolutionary impulse in fiction, the kind of thing that drew me in the first place to stories like Homestuck that are precisely about shattering the confines of one universe in the hopes of breaking free of a constraining and malevolent narrative. There, too, we have characters like Vriska Serket and Terezi Pyrope, separated across a barrier of narrative "relevance", still reaching out for each other-- but that's a whole other story.

The terms set by a work of fiction, the premises on which its world operates, are often easy to accept without much comment or question. That's, like, reading, after all: we fill in the blanks of the story and tell it and its world to ourselves, actively. It's sometimes possible to get lost in the way stories shuffle their pieces around, and miss what the hands shuffling them are really up to. Maybe part of the impetus for stories about how you can't retrieve the dead from another timeline is simply that we *can't*. Why tell a story where such a thing is heroic, when that can never be reflected literally in the real world? But then we might ask: why write speculative fiction in the first place? Why introduce the Multiverse as a conceit if you're just going to scold the viewer for imagining its capacity to relieve grief and loneliness--to imagine a different world? We don't necessarily have to take for granted the premises these fictional multiverses operate on. Their status quo was, after all, always designed from the very start: a rigged game.

What rigged games might we be playing in our corner of the multiverse, disguised by the sleight of narrative tropes quickly becoming popular enough to pass without mention?

This Has Been

A Multiverse Around The Corner (Where Your Dead Friends Live)

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1 comment:

  1. One is tempted to point at Bioshock Infinite’s extended self crucification as an the real patient zero here though spiderverse certainly helped.


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